The seven-win Pittsburgh Steelers needed a win on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. Heading into Week 14, the AFC's seventh seed wanted to not only keep hold of their conference standing but spoil the opportunity for the Bengals to clinch the AFC North and a playoff berth.
The Steelers did take care of the business under their control on Sunday, defeating the Bengals 33-20. Aided by injuries to key Bengals such as quarterback Andy Dalton, tight end Tyler Eifert and safety George Iloka, Pittsburgh's offense and defense both had big days.
Pittsburgh managed to reach the 30-point threshold for the fifth game in a row, this time without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throwing a single touchdown. That's not to say that Roethlisberger didn't have a good day in his own way. He completed 30 of 39 pass attempts for 282 yards. Roethlisberger had one interception and was sacked twice—but this time, it was not his arm or the after-catch abilities of his receivers that yielded Pittsburgh's points.
The Steelers scored two touchdowns on offense, bookending the day with rushing scores by back DeAngelo Williams. Chris Boswell put up four successful field goals, and cornerback William Gay picked off Bengals backup passer A.J. McCarron for six points.
Even Roethlisberger's interception didn't spoil Pittsburgh's day—it was followed up by another McCarron interception that led to Williams' final touchdown.
Pittsburgh did get lucky on defense with the Eifert and Dalton injuries, though. Even without their top passer, the Bengals still had 385 yards of total offense—321 via passing. The Bengals also averaged 6.9 yards per play and 8.7 yards per pass attempt—to Pittsburgh's 5.1 yards per play and 6.9 yards per pass attempt. Bengals receiver A.J. Green had another big day against Pittsburgh, posting 132 yards and a touchdown on his six receptions.
But it was the Bengals' inability to get into the red zone—and to score when there—that worked in Pittsburgh's favor. Cincinnati was just 1-of-3 in the red zone on Sunday and converted just three of their eight third-down attempts. They normally score touchdowns on 75 percent of their red-zone appearances.
The Steelers, meanwhile, managed two touchdowns from their three trips to the end zone and were 8-of-14 on third downs.
|AFC Playoff Standings|
It doesn't matter how the Steelers won—as much as does the fact that they did win. Pittsburgh is now 8-5 on the season. While the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets also improved to 8-5 and remain in control of the AFC's fifth and sixth playoff spots, a loss by the Steelers would have almost entirely sunk their postseason hopes.
Currently, the Chiefs and Jets hold conference-win tiebreakers over the Steelers, which is why they are currently in the playoffs and why the Steelers are out. But while the Chiefs and Steelers have only AFC opponents to face for the remainder of the season, the Jets have an NFC opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, up next.
That means—even if all three teams win out, the Steelers will get the nod over New York because of AFC victories. That's how thin the margin for error is for Pittsburgh right now and why taking care of business in Cincinnati was not an option on Sunday. It was a requirement.
Though the Steelers don't completely control their own postseason destiny, the future would have been entirely out of their hands with a loss against the Bengals. The Steelers had one job, and they completed it.
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from ESPN.com.