Oh, what could have been? If the Pittsburgh Steelers could have played the entire season the way they did on Sunday night against the Cincinnati Bengals, we all could be singing a different tune.
The Steelers beat the Bengals 30-20 thanks to a fast start that got them out to a 27-7 halftime lead. Unfortunately, the Steelers got a little conservative in the second half, allowing the Bengals to find their way back into the game.
In the end, however, the Steelers defense made the stops when they needed to, and not only kept their slim playoff hopes alive, but threw a real wrench in the Bengals' playoff plans.
Individually, this was not a game of gaudy stats, but there were some highlight reel plays by the Steelers. Let's hand out some grades.
All stats provided by NFL.com.
If you are one to scout the box score, you might not understand just how good quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was. After all, he only threw for 191 yards and had an interception.
What Roethlisberger did was beyond that. On a windy, cold night, Roethlisberger completed 80 percent of his throws, which on its own is impressive.
On the interception, it was a deep throw that got hung up in the wind and Bengals cornerback Adam Jones went up and got the football. By contrast on his touchdown to wide receiver Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger went through his reads and delivered a strike in the end zone.
Overall, Roethlisberger's effort was efficient and a perfect complement to the play of the defense.
The Steelers came out on Sunday night and showed a real commitment to the run game. Of course, that is not difficult to do when you take a 21-0 lead in the first quarter.
Regardless, 35 carries by the backs for 105 yards might not scream production, but it kept the clock moving. Of course, people would love to see a 100-yard rusher, but for now, the success of this group is in how they were able to complement the rest of the offense.
Le'Veon Bell was rock-solid yet again. Bell is among a group of only 20 skill position players to average 90 yards of total offense per game. On Sunday, Bell finished with 107 total yards.
Le'Veon Bell: A
Jonathan Dwyer: B+
Felix Jones: B
Opportunities for the Steelers wide receivers and tight ends were somewhat limited on Sunday night. Roethlisberger did a great job distributing the football, and for the most part, the Steelers held up their end of the bargain.
The Steelers weren't able to use the deep pass like they have for much of the season, but with only five incompletions, even with the short-passing game going, it worked. Roethlisberger did a nice job of distributing the football, with four players with at least four catches.
Antonio Brown: A-
Emmanuel Sanders: B
Heath Miller: A-
Big props to the Steelers offensive line and how they played on Sunday. Even allowing a single sack, the Steelers line was great. Play after play, Roethlisberger was in a position to stand in the pocket, survey the field and deliver the football under little or no duress.
Same goes for the run game. The worst run plays of the night came when the Steelers chose to pack the line of scrimmage, causing more congestion than running lanes. When the front had a clean run at the Bengals defense and numbers were favorable, they did a very nice job.
Offensive Line: A
Going into Sunday's game, the depth of the Steelers defensive line was a justifiable concern. Defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Al Woods were getting starts, along with defensive end Cameron Heyward, who would be seeing a ton of snaps.
It was evident the Bengals wanted to come out and run the football. Nevertheless, this front-three was having none of that. All three did a great job getting penetration on running plays or routing the Bengals running backs into the linebackers.
Overall, this might have been the best overall performance by the Steelers defensive line all season.
Al Woods: A-
Cameron Heyward: B
Ziggy Hood: A
The Steelers used more linebackers on Sunday, presumably because of the lack of depth along the defensive line.
This strategy paid off, as linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Vince Williams were very active. Thanks to the play of the front, plenty of plays funneled their approach to the two inside linebackers and they finished.
On the outside, things were less exciting. But still, outside linebacker Jason Worilds had a solid game. Worilds didn't register a sack, but was able to hit Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton twice and harassed him most of the night.
Lawrence Timmons: A-
Vince Williams: A-
Jason Worilds: B+
Jarvis Jones: B-
Overall, the performance by the defensive secondary on Sunday was sound. Not spectacular, by any means, but sound.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton finished with 230 yards passing, the bulk of which came in the second half. The Steelers had a couple of drives where coverages went a little soft and the Bengals were able to move the ball in the air.
However, on Sunday night the Steelers did not allow a play of 20 or more yards, which is a huge plus.
The only turnover of the game for the Steelers was at the hands of safety Troy Polamalu, and the only real slip in coverage was thanks to safety Will Allen. Overall, this was a solid defensive game against a pretty potent passing offense.
Ike Taylor: B-
Cortez Allen: B-
Troy Polamalu: A-
Ryan Clark: C+
On a windy night like Sunday, special teams had to be a concern. For kicker Shaun Suisham, it didn't really matter. Suisham hit all three of his field goal attempts as well as all three of his extra point tries.
Punter Mat McBriar struggled some with the wind—as to be expected—and only averaged 38.3 yards per punt on three punts.
Special teams, on the whole, got a big boost with wide receiver Antonio Brown's 67-yard punt return for a touchdown which gave the Steelers a lot of momentum.
Shaun Suisham: A
Mat McBriar: C