Leading 20-9 after a dominant first half, the Bengals’ halftime speech must have went as follows:
Head coach Marvin Lewis: “Alright, men, we’re up two possessions. What can we do to embarrass ourselves this time?”
Running back Jeremy Hill, picking up a water bottle, but fumbling it at the last second: “I’m playing pretty well and have a touchdown today. I’m just gonna not do that anymore.”
(He had six carries for -1 yards in the second half, by the way)
Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick: “No, no, no. I have a better idea. How about I just commit like 13 or 14 penalties this half?”
Lewis: “Excellent suggestions! I can’t lose a playoff game for the sixth year in a row if we miss the postseason altogether.”
At 5-8-1, the Bengals are eliminated from playoff contention, putting their stock firmly in the downward directly. The Steelers, on the other hand...
Stock up, the secondary
Fine, whatever, Pittsburgh’s secondary is good. Andy Dalton had like 30 passing yards in the second half. Maybe even less than that. This was after he led Cincinnati on four consecutive scoring drives in the first half. I don’t know what adjustments the Steelers made at halftime, but they certainly worked. The only player not named Brandon LaFell who finished with more than 15 receiving yards was backup halfback Rex Burkhead. The Bengals’ passing attack was always going to be at a disadvantage without A.J. Green, but that sure didn’t stop Cincinnati from marching into Pittsburgh’s territory at will for the first half of the game. Credit Pittsburgh’s secondary for making a solid adjustment, and smile knowing that Artie Burns looks like a future star.
Stock up, Ben Roethlisberger
For much of Pittsburgh’s four-game (now five-game) winning streak, Ben was the beneficiary of everyone else’s success rather than the facilitator. He looked as sharp as ever between the 20s on Sunday, but threw just a single touchdown in six or seven trips inside Bengal’s territory. Fortunately, that touchdown was the game-winner, and none of Chris Boswell’s record-tying six field goals would have happened had it not been for Roethlisberger at least knocking on the door of the red zone.
Stock up, offensive line
They allowed just one sack that wasn’t even a “sack” because Ben botched the snap. The Bengals aren’t getting to opposing quarterbacks like the usually do (25 sacks this season, ranked 25th in the NFL), but holding the likes of Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins without a takedown is a praiseworthy result. This is by far the best offensive line with which Roethlisberger has ever played.
Stock up, guys that catch passes not named Antonio Brown
Eli Rogers had the best game of his young career with five catches for 75 years and the game-winning touchdown, while Ladarius Green endeared himself to fans for a lifetime by literally taking one for the team on a critical first-down catch late in the fourth quarter. Green is in concussion protocol currently (which is not good, given his history of head injuries), so his status is definitely worth monitoring leading up to the de facto AFC North championship game on Christmas.
Stock up, everything else
Do you guys remember last season’s game against Denver? In this game, which, coincidentally, also happened in Week 15, the Steelers played like garbage in the first half before rebounding and ultimately beating Denver by a touchdown. Do you remember what happened next? That’s right, Pittsburgh lost to Baltimore the very next week with a trip to the playoffs on the line!
As the Bengals’ hilarious self-induced implosion clearly demonstrates, history does repeat itself. The Steelers are winners of five straight and are among the hottest teams in the NFL. Their recent history against Baltimore has not been good, but this recent run of success will make them tough to bet against next weekend.