NFL Wire News

Steelers-Bengals: What we learned

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PITTSBURGH — Antonio Brown was the hero as the Pittsburgh Steelers won the AFC North title, to the surprise of no one.

“Who else would it be?” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said with a smile.

The Pro Bowl wide receiver started the scoring with a 71-yard punt return and ended it with a 63-yard reception as the Steelers beat the Cincinnati Bengals 27-17 Sunday night in a showdown for the division crown.

While the Steelers (11-5) won their first division title since 2010 and secured a home playoff game Saturday night against the Baltimore Ravens (10-6) in the AFC wild-card round, they could be without team Most Valuable Player Le’Veon Bell.

The second-year running back sustained a hyperextended right knee in the third quarter when struck by the helmet of Bengals safety Reggie Nelson while being tackled. Bell finished the regular season with 1,361 rushing yards plus 83 receptions for 854 yards.

X-rays showed no structural damage in the knee, but Tomlin said it was too early to know Bell’s availability for Saturday. Tomlin also got in Nelson’s face after the game, wagging a finger at him. Both later said the confrontation was not a big deal but declined to address it beyond that.

Josh Harris, an undrafted rookie free agent, finished the game at running back for Pittsburgh. Harris gained 7 yards on five carries, while Bell gained 20 yards on eight carries.

The Bengals (10-5-1) will visit the Indianapolis Colts (11-5) on Sunday in a wild-card game, marking the fourth consecutive season Cincinnati will participate in the playoffs. The Bengals missed a chance to win back-to-back division crowns for the first time in their 44-year history.

Brown had seven receptions for 128 yards and finished the regular season leading the NFL with 129 catches and 1,698 yards.

Brown’s touchdown catch with 2:50 remaining sealed the victory and was his 13th receiving TD of the season, breaking the franchise record.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 24 of 38 passes for 317 yards and two touchdowns despite feeling the effects of a stomach virus.

“I feel good now because we won,” Roethlisberger said with a grin after the game. “It was no big deal. Just a little bug.”

Down 20-17, the Bengals were driving when wide receiver A.J. Green lost a fumble with 3:54 remaining after being hit by cornerback Antwon Blake following a 17-yard reception. Blake recovered at the Cincinnati 31 while the Bengals medical staff put Green under concussion protocol following the game.

Three plays later, Roethlisberger and Brown connected for a touchdown.

“A lot of people say the division title doesn’t mean anything, all that matters is getting into the playoffs.” Blake said. “But it’s important for us to win the AFC North. It’s a tough division. We’re playing another AFC North team next week in the playoffs. We wanted to put on those (division championship) hats and T-shirts after the game.”

Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis admitted it was disappointing to see the Bengals let a chance to win the division slip away with the last of his team’s three turnovers.

“We had that turnover at the end, and the turnover seemed to be our issue today,” Lewis said. “That was the biggest part of the day against us. We had a rough day. It’s key to take care of the football. We didn’t do a very good job of it.”

However, Lewis said there was no sense in dwelling on the loss.

“It’s a new season now,” he said.

Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill gained 100 yards on 23 carries, and Green, also playing with a bruised left forearm, caught eight passes for 82 yards. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton finished 27-for-38 for 244 yards and two touchdowns but was also intercepted twice.

Cincinnati cut the deficit to 20-17 with 11:14 left when tight end Jermaine Gresham caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Dalton.

The Steelers scored the final 13 points of the second quarter to take a 20-10 halftime lead.

Kicker Shaun Suisham tied the score with a 29-yard field goal with 7:36 left then put the Steelers ahead by 10 points when he connected from 25 yards with 44 seconds remaining.

In between field goals, wide receiver Martavis Bryant put Pittsburgh on top 17-10 when he turned a screen pass from Roethlisberger into a 21-yard touchdown with 5:52 remaining in the half. The score was set up by the first of cornerback Brice McCann’s two interceptions.

The Bengals moved in front 10-7 when running back Giovanni Bernard caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Dalton with 2:43 left in the first quarter and kicker Mike Nugent converted a 39-year field goal with 12:32 to go in the second quarter.

Brown started the scoring in exciting fashion 4:10 into the game. He fielded Kevin Huber’s 54-yard punt and cut right, where he found no running room, before reversing field and going down the left sideline for the score that included a somersault just as he reached the end zone.

What the Steelers said:

“I’m just really, really happy for our group. The group grew and grew together and remained resilient throughout.” — Coach Mike Tomlin, whose team won eight of its last 10 games to overcome a 3-3 start and win its first AFC North title since 2010.

What the Bengals said:

“You can’t come on the road, play a great football team — one of the better ones still playing — and play against yourselves at the same time.” — Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, referring to Cincinnati committing three turnovers.

What we learned about the Steelers:

1. A patchwork secondary that was without safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor for a good chunk of the season is starting to come together. Cornerback Brice McCann had two interceptions, and cornerback Antwon Blake forced and recovered a fumble by Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green late in the fourth quarter when the Bengals were trailing 20-17 but driving toward a potential go-ahead score. McCann’s interceptions were significant because the Steelers picked off just nine passes in their first 15 games.

2. Big trouble is ahead if running back Le’Veon Bell is unable to play Saturday when the Steelers host the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC wild-card playoff game. The Pro Bowler hyperextended his right knee in the third quarter and did not return, though X-rays showed no structural damage. There are just two other running backs on the roster, rookies Josh Harris and Dri Archer, and they have a combined 18 carries for 57 yards. Harris mustered just 7 yards on five attempts Sunday.

–RB Le’Veon Bell hyperextended his right knee in the third quarter when struck by the helmet of Bengals S Reggie Nelson while being tackled, and he did not return. X-rays showed no structural damage in the knee, but coach Mike Tomlin said it was too early to know Bell’s availability for Saturday’s wild-card playoff game against Baltimore. Bell finished the game with 20 yards on eight carries and six receptions for 80 yards, and he ended the regular season with 1,361 rushing yards plus 83 receptions for 854 yards.

–RB Josh Harris, an undrafted rookie free agent, finished the game in Le’Veon Bell’s place and gained just 7 yards on five carries. He has nine carries this season for 16 yards.

–S Troy Polamalu (knee) missed his second consecutive game and sat out for the fifth time in the last eight regular-season games. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was hopeful earlier in the week that Polamalu would be able to play.

–CB Ike Taylor (shoulder) sat out his third straight game. However, Taylor’s absence was likely more a result of the Steelers having better options in the secondary. Taylor missed eight games after breaking his hand Sept. 21 in a win at Carolina, returned Nov. 30 and struggled in a loss to New Orleans and a win at Cincinnati.

–WR Antonio Brown had the third punt-return touchdown of his five-year career in the first quarter, a 71-yarder, then scored the clinching touchdown on a 64-yard reception with 2:50 left that put the Steelers up 27-17. Brown had seven receptions for 128 yards and finished the regular season with 129 receptions and 1,697 receiving yards, both league-leading figures and team records. His 13th TD catch also broke the franchise record. Brown ended up with the second-most receptions in a single season in NFL history behind only Marvin Harrison’s record 142 in 2002 for Indianapolis. Brown is also one away from the franchise career record for punt-return touchdowns that is held by Antwaan Randle-El.

–WR Martavis Bryant, a rookie who was deemed not ready to play in any of the first six games, had his eighth touchdown reception of the season, covering 21 yards on a screen pass from QB Ben Roethlisberger in the second quarter Sunday. Bryant just missed the franchise rookie record of nine, set by Louis Lipps in 1984.

–QB Ben Roethlisberger overcame a stomach virus to complete 24 of 38 passes for 317 yards and two touchdowns. He became the 18th quarterback in the NFL history to throw 250 TD passes when he connected with WR Martavis Bryant in the second quarter.

What we learned about the Bengals:

1. The questions about Andy Dalton’s ability to be a championship quarterback can start anew after the four-year veteran threw two interceptions in a game in which the division title was on the line. The Bengals had reason for hope when Dalton led the Bengals to a victory over the Denver Broncos in prime time on Monday night. However, he was ordinary against the Steelers. And there is also the matter of him being 0-3 all-time in the postseason going into Sunday’s game AFC wild-card game at Indianapolis.

2. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis not only downplayed the loss following the game but also the fact he has never won a playoff game during his 12-year tenure. “No memory. It’s a new season now,” he insisted. The fact of the matter, though, is the Bengals’ last playoff victory was so long ago that it came over the Houston Oilers in 1990. The Oilers left Houston seven years later for Tennessee and eventually were renamed the Titans.

–WR A.J. Green was put under concussion protocol following the game. He was injured when hit by Steelers CB Antwon Blake in the fourth quarter. Already playing with a bruised left forearm sustained six nights earlier in a win over Denver, Green finished with eight receptions for 82 yards Sunday.

–CB Terence Newman (ankle) was unable to play for the second time in the last three regular-season games. The Bengals, though, feel he will be ready to play Sunday when they visit Indianapolis in an AFC wild-card playoff game.

–RB Cedric Peerman left the game in the first quarter with a concussion and did not return. He is considered questionable for Sunday’s wild-card game at Indianapolis.

–TE Jermaine Gresham sustained a lower-back injury in the first quarter and was termed questionable to return, but he came back into the game in the second quarter. He wound up with receptions on all three targets for 20 yards and a touchdown.

–RB Jeremy Hill rushed for 100 yards on 23 carries and finished the regular season with 1,124 yards on 222 carries. That left him 5 yards short of the franchise rookie record set by Corey Dillon in 1997.


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