No quit from underdog Steelers in downing Bengals at Heinz Field
If only the Steelers had played in September the way they did on a throwback Sunday night in December.
The Steelers turned a succession of special teams mistakes by the Cincinnati Bengals (9-5) into a club record-tying 21-point first quarter that featured an Antonio Brown touchdown catch and 67-yard punt return score, and they beat up on their division rival 30-20 at Heinz Field.
The first-place Bengals were favored to win in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1989, but it was the Steelers who turned back the clock with a vintage performance that made their fans wonder where this had been all season.
“Cincinnati was beginning to feel good about themselves against us,” safety Ryan Clark said. “They'd won two in a row and at the end of the game in September they were fighting and talking. It was good to get them at a time they were feeling good about themselves.”
At the same time, the Steelers were wondering where their fans were.
There were nearly 20,000 no-shows — the crowd of 45,873 easily was the smallest since Heinz Field opened in 2001 — and they missed the kind of all-around performance the Steelers rarely have produced while going 14-16 the past two seasons.
The NFL's oldest defense — its average age is about 29 — never let a flustered Andy Dalton get settled in as the Steelers opened first-half leads of 21-0 and 27-7. By contrast, Ben Roethlisberger was nearly flawless early on in an offense that needed to drive only 48 yards for its first two scores.
Roethlisberger was 20 of 25 for 191 yards and broke his 2009 club record for completions in a season. He has 340.
“They're at the top (of the division), but we wanted to come out and play a complete game,” Roethlisberger said. “I wish we could have finished better. … But it was a W, and that means more than any personal records.”
The Bengals finally found rhythm with a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but they hardly mattered.
Ending a two-game losing streak that left them with only a mathematical chance of reaching the playoffs, the Steelers (6-8) staved off playoff elimination and delayed the Bengals' AFC North title-clinching for at least another week. They also badly damaged Cincinnati's chances of securing a wild-card weekend bye.
The Steelers' 21st win in their past 29 games against the Bengals was a payback of sorts for the Bengals' 13-10 win at Heinz Field last December that eliminated Pittsburgh from playoff contention.
It didn't take long at all, either.
Bengals punter Kevin Huber — he couldn't have had a much more miserable night — mishandled the snap as he tried to get off a kick near his goal line on Cincinnati's first possession and was tackled by Will Allen at the 1.
Le'Veon Bell couldn't get in on first down but did on second to start the Steelers on only the second 21-point opening quarter in their history. The other one was against the New England Patriots in 2004, during Roethlisberger's rookie season.
It would get worse for Huber and the Bengals.
Brown's 11-yard punt return again gave the Steelers the ball at the Cincinnati 47, and he finished the eight-play drive with a 13-yard scoring catch that made it 14-0. Brown made five catches and needs just five more to reach the 100-catch mark for the season.
It wasn't Brown's biggest play of the night.
Huber punted yet again and, as Brown broke free after fielding the punt at his own 33, tried to move in and help with the tackle. But Huber was blindsided by a crunching block by Terence Garvin that broke his jaw as Brown raced downfield on a 67-yard punt return score, the second of his career.
“I thought I hit him pretty good,” Garvin said. “I was just looking for the first white jersey I could find. I didn't even feel it.”
The Steelers had scored only 43 points in the first quarter all season, yet they had 21 with 1:12 remaining in the quarter.
Shaun Suisham added field goals of 25, 45 and 26 yards.
For one night, the Steelers were the Steelers again. But it likely was too little, too late.