In multiple ways, this was an ugly football game.
The first 10 drives of the game featured eight punts, a fumble by the Steelers and a turnover by the Bengals, in that order. No team could get much going on offense and there were only 10 first downs in the first half.
Even so, the Steelers went into the locker room at halftime with a 6-0 lead and looked like they could run away with the game after putting up 10 points on their first two second-half drives.
However, Cincinnati knocked Ben Roethlisberger out of the game at the end of the third quarter forcing backup Landry Jones into action. The Bengals rebounded in the veteran QB's absence and put up points on three straight fourth-quarter drives to take a 16-15 lead late in the fourth quarter.
Jones was lackluster, going 2-of-5 for 11 yards with an interception and a sack.
That was when things got really ugly.
With the Bengals leading by just a single a point, Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict laid a brutal hit on Steelers wideout Antonio Brown, saddling him with a concussion and forcing him out of the game. The hit landed the team with a 15-yard personal foul penalty that pushed the Steelers into field-goal range at the Bengals' 32-yard line.
Burfict almost killed Antonio Brown 😳 https://t.co/FawQw1UH1b— Football Videos (@FootballVlds) January 10, 2016
Cincinnati followed with another 15-yard penalty, this one on cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, for unsportsmanlike conduct for shoving Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter. The series of events was nothing short of bizarre and summed up by this Twitter user, an unfortunate Browns fan:
That was the dumbest series of events I've seen all month and my quarterback wore a blonde wig and fake mustache in vegas— Matt Kirchner (@MKirchner12) January 10, 2016
That was all Steelers kicker Chris Boswell needed to put a cap on this one and give Pittsburgh an 18-16 lead that they would carry through to the final buzzer.
Lost in that narrative, though equally important, are the injuries to Brown, and perhaps more importantly, Roethlisberger.
Brown's injury—he reportedly suffered a concussion after the hit by Burfict—could prove damaging to a team that leans so heavily on its prowess in the passing game.
Brown was the league's second-leading receiver in yardage and ranked inside the NFL's top 10 in receptions, touchdowns and yards per game. He's a stud in every sense of the word, but he's not alone in propping up this receiving corps.
With talented wideouts such as Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, as well as tight end Heath Miller, it's conceivable that the Steelers could get by without Brown. Without Roethlisberger though, they're doomed.
Big Ben needs to be healthy for the Steelers to go anywhere this postseason. We saw what Jones did in limited time Saturday night and over a prolonged period of time when he subbed for Roethlisberger earlier in the 2015 season:
Pro Football Reference
Jones was ineffective, and in his lone full game, was picked apart by the Kansas City Chiefs defense.
Next week, if Roethlisberger is unable to go, it could be a full-on disaster, as the team will face the Denver Broncos. The Broncos are No. 1 in the league in terms of total defense, and they also rank fourth in points allowed per game (18.4).
They'll eat Jones alive.
Even an unhealthy Roethlisberger may not be enough to get the Steelers over the hump, especially if he's going at it without Brown.
As of this moment, there's no indication as to whether or not Brown or Roethlisberger will miss any time. When asked about their availability moving forward, head coach Mike Tomlin told Mark Maske of the Washington Post, "I don’t have any indication about any of the guys. ... We’ll assess it [Sunday]."
Either way, the Steelers sure could use Brown—and more importantly Big Ben—at 100 percent.
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