PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers forced three turnovers and scored a late touchdown to secure a 27-17 win against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday night at Heinz Field.
The win earned the Steelers (11-5) the AFC North Division title and a home game as the No. 3 seed in the ensuing AFC playoffs. The Steelers face the sixth-seed Baltimore Ravens in Pittsburgh Saturday night at 8:15 p.m. ET. The Steelers hammered the Ravens in their last meeting, 42-23 on Nov. 2 at Heinz Field.
The one negative in this victory was the loss of running back Le'Veon Bell late in the third quarter. Bell suffered a right knee injury and did not play in the fourth quarter. His status wasn't immediately known.
The Steelers had three possessions during the first quarter and recorded only two first downs, a 22-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Bell in the flat that the running back carried for extra yardage and an eight-yarder to Heath Miller during the third possession.
However, a dropped pass by Antonio Brown during that opening series, as well as another one by him on third down during the second possession, thwarted the club's offensive progress. A bad snap by center Maurkice Pouncey caromed off Roethlisberger and was recovered by Cincinnati with time running out in the first quarter.
Fortunately for the Steelers, Brown didn't drop the kick from punter Kevin Huber after the Bengals' opening drive and returned it 71 yards for a touchdown. Brown reversed field and only had to beat Huber on his way down the far sideline. It was Brown's third career score on a punt return, just one short of Antwaan Randle El's team record.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, their offensive ineptitude led to all of the Bengals' first-half points. Cornerback Brice McCain intercepted Andy Dalton on the 2-yard line, and his momentum carried him into the end zone. By the time he realized he couldn't down the ball and had to run it out, he only got to the 5-yard line. Then, Brown's drop on third-and-short forced a punt from the goal line that Brad Wing kicked short and the Bengals got the ball on the Steelers' 42.
Cincinnati needed just seven plays and 4:02 to score. Dalton completed a fourth-down pass to Ben Tate to keep the drive alive and his swing pass to Giovani Bernard went 17 yards for the touchdown to tie the score. The ensuing drive began at the Steelers' 34 due to the muffed snap that Wallace Gilberry recovered. Dalton connected with A.J. Green for 11 yards on third-and-five. However, a big sack by Cam Heyward forced Mike Nugent to kick a 39-yard field goal.
The Steelers tied the score on their next possession, but missed out on scoring a touchdown after Roethlisberger missed Miller wide open in the middle of the end zone. The ball was badly overthrown, and Miller was clubbed while he stretched out. However, no call was made for a high hit a defenseless receiver. Shaun Suisham kicked a 29-yard field goal to tie the score at 10-10. It was a nine-play, 69-yard drive consuming nearly five minutes, but the Steelers stalled in the red zone once again.
The defense, which had been gashed for six plays of 10 yards or more, came up with another turnover midway through the second quarter. Dalton's pass to Green, who appeared to give a half-hearted effort, deflected the ball to McCain for his second interception. He returned it 31 yards to the 28, and the Steelers needed just two plays to score. Roethlisberger hit Brown for seven and then completed a pass wide to Martavis Bryant. With Miller's inside block and Markus Wheaton's on the outside, Bryant had a seam to run 21 yards into the end zone.
The touchdown was Bryant's eighth this season, placing him second among Steelers' rookie wideouts behind Louis Lipps' nine in 1984. Brown also reached second place among all NFL wideouts for catches in a season. He surpassed the 123 by Herman Moore and Wes Welker. Brown couldn't catch record-holder Marvin Harrison, who tallied 143 in 2002, but he maintained his NFL record streak with at least five catches for 50 yards in 34 straight games.
Thanks to a sack by Sean Spence, the Steelers got the ball back with less than three minutes remaining in the first half and quickly drove into field-goal range with 13-yard passes to Wheaton and Brown, and a seven-yarder to Wheaton that also moved the sticks. Two penalties by the Bengals vaunted secondary, a hands-to-the face and pass-interference call, along with an 11-yard pass to Brown, moved the ball to the 10-yard line and a first-and-goal.
Three plays, however, netted just three yards on a short pass to Bell on first down. And Suisham had to bank a 25-yard field goal off of the left goal post to give the Steelers a 20-10 lead at halftime.
The Bengals converted a fourth-and-one play to keep their drive alive to open the second half, but Steelers stiffened and Nugent's 50-yard field goal was wide right. That gave the Steelers the ball at the 40. But that excellent field position went for naught, as a three-and-out forced a Wing punt. His 42-yard floater rolled a bit to the 18, and the Bengals would have to drive a good distance to get back in the game.
The Bengals couldn't do it and Huber came up with his worst punt of the night. Still, the Steelers couldn't do much either, and they lost Bell in the process. He caught a 19-yard pass from Roethlisberger, but was hit on his right knee and had to leave the game in the waning minutes of the third quarter. He didn't return, and the Steelers running game suddenly was in jeopardy.
The Steelers had a chance at a long field goal, but Roethlisberger's awful throw was picked off by Reggie Nelson at the 15-yard line, and he fell at the 11. Dalton then drove the Bengals down the field with a precise passing attack. He completed four passes for first-down yardage, and Jeremy Hill ran for 11 yards to the 5-yard line. The spectacular 15-play, 89-yard scoring drive in 7:29 was capped by Dalton's five-yard toss to tight end Jermaine Gresham that got the Bengals within three points at 20-17.
The Steelers appeared to get a big play to open their ensuing series, but Josh Harris' 60-yard run was called back due to a holding by Ramon Foster. It was the first penalty called on the Steelers and a questionable one at that. The Steelers still drove to midfield, but Roethlisberger's continued inconsistency was their downfall. Wing came on to punt, and some genius on the Steelers sideline believed he should fake it and throw a pass. It was a hideous throw that was easily picked off by the Bengals.
Cincinnati appeared to be driving for the game-tying field goal (or better), but after Dalton hit Green for a 17-yard connection, Antwon Blake nailed him to force a fumble which Blake recovered. The Steelers had the ball on their 30-yard line with 3:51 remaining. When runs by Harris couldn't move the sticks, Roethlisberger went to the air. He found Brown open downfield and, after a little move, he raced 63 total yards for a touchdown to give the Steelers a 27-13 advantage with 2:50 remaining.
It was Brown's 13th touchdown reception this season to set a new Steelers record.