It was not one thing that doomed the Bengals, who would have taken sole possession of the No. 2 seed in the AFC with a win courtesy of a tiebreaker over New England, but injury issues loom far and above the rest.
Those issues will give the Bengals serious trouble on their march toward the playoffs.
Injuries are nothing new to Cincinnati in 2013. Like any team in the NFL at this point, the roster is banged-up to the umpteenth degree. Nine players sit on injured reserve, with more likely to join after Sunday night's chaos.
Among those names is star defensive tackle Geno Atkins and No. 1 corner Leon Hall. Starting left guard Clint Boling is there, as is rotational defensive end Robert Geathers. Emmanuel Lamur was the team's primary backup at both strong- and weak-side linebacker and a special teams ace. The same goes for Taylor Mays on kick coverage, who also played a hybrid safety-linebacker role effectively.
These losses have caused changes to the way Cincinnati executes each week in all phases.
But an injury that withheld veteran cornerback Terence Newman from the field Sunday night may have been the final domino to fall.
Newman, in combination with Adam Jones, helped to mitigate the loss of Hall this season. The veteran corner entered Week 15 as the No. 29 corner in the NFL on a list that ranked 111 players, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The result was Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger targeting second-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick all night in effective fashion. In Kirkpatrick's big chance to act as a starter after being taken in the first round and missing most of last season, the Alabama product folded under the national microscope from the opening gun as ESPN's Coley Harvey points out:
First play of the game and Dre Kirkpatrick flagged for a Facemask. Not a good start for the youngster making his first start. #Bengals— Coley Harvey (@ColeyHarvey) December 16, 2013
That is a major issue moving forward. Not only did Kirkpatrick have his troubles, his injury history is also shaky—and he even briefly left the game Sunday night with yet another issue.
Kirkpatrick's play wrote the blueprint on exploiting coordinator Mike Zimmer's defense. The Steelers utilized a no-huddle approach and negated the Cincinnati pass rush through quick strikes. Cincinnati could not afford to send extra rushers anyway with Kirkpatrick needing help in coverage.
The accumulation of injuries allowed Roethlisberger to post a 20-of-25 line for 191 yards with a score and interception. Pittsburgh also rushed for 106 yards and a score.
Flip to the other side of the spectrum, where injuries along the offensive line finally took their toll. With left tackle Andrew Whitworth at left guard in place of Boling, backup swing tackle Anthony Collins starting at left tackle for Whitworth and backup Mike Pollak starting at right guard for Kevin Zeitler, the makeshift line finally caved in on itself.
Quarterback Andy Dalton was only sacked once, but he was under duress all night. The line failed to get any push in the running game, which resulted in just 57 yards on the ground.
None of this even mentions the injuries the Bengals suffered during their divisional bout. Tight end Jermaine Gresham and linebacker James Harrison left the game with injuries, per the broadcast's Twitter account:
TAFOYA: Jermaine Gresham is questionable to return with a right hip injury.— SNF on NBC (@SNFonNBC) December 16, 2013
TAFOYA: James Harrison is in the Bengals locker room being evaluated for a concussion. His return is doubtful.— SNF on NBC (@SNFonNBC) December 16, 2013
As did punter Kevin Huber, who fractured his jaw on a blindside block, which he had wired shut not even an hour after the game ended, per ESPN:
Best wishes on a speedy recovery to Bengals punter Kevin Huber who suffered a fractured jaw tonight vs. Pittsburgh.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 16, 2013
Kevin Huber's jaw has already been wired shut. #Bengals— Coley Harvey (@ColeyHarvey) December 16, 2013
The severity and extent of these injuries is to be decided, but any missed time at all is an issue at this point. Linebacker is already eerily thin, the absence of Gresham would end the two-tight end sets Dalton relies on and Huber was having a monster year before the injury.
Suffice to say, the injury plague is finally taking its toll on the team that hails from the Queen City.
Week 17 is a bout with 7-6 Baltimore, a team with a major opportunity thanks to Cincinnati's loss on Sunday night. As NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah illustrates, the Ravens can win the AFC North outright if they win the rest of their games:
If the Bengals lose tonight, the Ravens will be in control of their destiny..,win out, win the division.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) December 16, 2013
Will the Bengals win the AFC North?
That journey for the Ravens starts on Monday Night Football in Week 15, but regardless, this is the same Baltimore team that knocked off the Bengals in Week 10, 20-17.
Thanks to injuries, which inhibits what Cincinnati can do, the AFC crown is far from a guarantee. A postseason berth is not a guarantee either.
This is by no means a cop-out for a potential collapse. The play-calling in all areas could be leagues better, as could the execution. But at some point, the team is allowed some wiggle room given the state of the depleted roster.
The Bengals have a long road ahead in the next two short weeks, and for a team that has failed in consecutive postseason games, struggled away from home this year and once again failed in a prime-time game, it may prove to be a daunting task.