The Cincinnati Bengals didn't play their best offensive game on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but ultimately, it didn't matter. Thanks to a Reggie Nelson interception of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with 45 seconds remaining (and a subsequent 21-yard reception by A.J. Green), Bengals kicker Josh Brown made a 43-yard field goal that gave them the 13-10 victory.
The win puts the Bengals in the playoffs for the second consecutive season—a feat they haven't accomplished in 30 years—but also illuminated problems that need fixing if they're to get the all-important postseason victory in two weeks.
Though Cincinnati's defensive line yet again displayed why they're the very best in the league, sacking Roethlisberger four times (with 2.5 of those belonging to sack leader Geno Atkins), the offense struggled throughout much of the contest. Quarterback Andy Dalton was again inconsistent under pressure, completing 24 of his 41 pass attempts, for 278 yards and two interceptions, and the only touchdown the Bengals put up was on defense (a Leon Hall pick-six).
Cincinnati's run game was the worst it's been all season. In his past five games, BenJarvus Green-Ellis has had no fewer than 89 yards; this game, however, was the second time this season he's been held to just 14 yards—on 15 carries, in fact, giving him less than a one-yard-per-carry average. The Steelers' prowess in stopping the run ultimately made passing that much harder for the Bengals, especially when it came to buying enough time for Dalton to throw deep via the play-action.
Indeed, the saving grace for the Bengals this Sunday was their defense. Not only did they generate the first-quarter interception score, but they also prevented the Steelers from putting up a single point on their three takeaways (the two Dalton interceptions and an A.J. Green fumble) and pulled down the pick that ultimately led to Josh Brown's game-winning field goal.
Their only misstep was the 60-yard Antonio Brown touchdown reception, in which he beat cornerback Adam Jones on a double move—perhaps some safety help would have prevented the score.
It was a gift-wrapped win for the Bengals in a game in which the offense simply couldn't get much done. Dalton's regression continued, as he appeared to be more like the quarterback he was during the Bengals' four-game slide earlier in the season. Pressure forced him to overthrow his passes, and when he had time, he was overthinking his options.
It didn't help that head coach Marvin Lewis made some head-scratching calls—like going for it on 4th-and-22 (a barely out-of-bounds catch by Green) and asking Brown to make a late attempt at a 54-yard field goal (the turnover on downs resulted in the Steelers attempting a 50-plus yarder of their own that was also no good).
Bad decisions ended up not costing the Bengals as much as they could have, as compared to the Steelers' errors that ultimately led to their demise.
Dalton wasn't completely a mess, however. He connected with Green 10 times on 18 targets, for 116 yards and, when in a rhythm, did a good job of exploiting the Steelers' shaky coverage despite also being picked by Cortez Allen twice. Marvin Jones ended the day pulling down five of seven passes thrown his way, for 65 yards, and Jermaine Gresham had three catches for 38 yards.
However, the lack of balance that we've seen out of Cincinnati's offense in the past was disconcerting. To make a deep postseason run, Green-Ellis cannot be shut down as he was on Sunday. No matter how they attempted to attack the Steelers on the ground, nothing came out of it. Lawrence Timmons and Troy Polamalu were particularly strong against the run, with Timmons posting 10 total tackles on the day and Polamalu, eight.
The Bengals will need to find a way to add more variety to the run game—providing a rushing alternative to Green-Ellis, for example—now that there's a clear blueprint for making Cincinnati's offense one-dimensional.
But at least Cincinnati's return to the drawing-board will be in preparation for the playoffs rather than in preparation for next season. They managed to bump a formidable divisional foe out of postseason contention and could very well be competing for the AFC North title next Sunday depending on the outcome of the late-afternoon meeting between the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants.
Not only did the Steelers throw this game away, but the Bengals capitalized on Pittsburgh's mistakes and ultimately earned themselves their most important victory of the season. There's work to be done, but at least it will be taking place knowing that they've pulled off what has become a once-in-a-generation feat for their franchise.
If there's a case to be made that this is a new Bengals era, these back-to-back playoff seasons are pretty convincing arguments, no matter how they got there.