I would be lying if I said that I had ever personally seen such a crazy, up-and-down game while covering the Pittsburgh Steelers—at the very least, not with this much on the line. And granted, I haven’t been covering the team for all that long. In fact, this is the first time they have actually won in the postseason in a game I’ve written about, breaking my jinx-like effect on the team.
The back and forth momentum was a virtual game-long tug of war, beginning with an exchange of defensive stands producing three-and-outs on the opening drives for either offense. Both offenses then exchanged promising drives that breached the opponents’ 40-yard line before settling for more punting for both sides.
What ensued after that was three more three-and-out drives, making that five of the first seven drives of the game to fail to produce a first down, only for the third even remotely promising drive to end on an unforced error when Markus Wheaton fumbled by trying to balance himself with his possession hand on the ground for the first turnover of the game.
The Bengals promptly went three-and-out again, this time with the third-down pass resulting in an interception by Antwon Blake, which gave either team the first short field of the game, and yielded the first points in a Chris Boswell 39-yard field goal, which would prove to be his most taxing try of the night.
After yet another three-and-out drive from the Bengals, the Steelers offense drove 63 yards down into the red zone, all the way to the 12, until the drive stalled, resulting in another field goal. But that was only because Vincent Rey dropped a sure Ben Roethlisberger interception at the goal line on third down, in a game decided by a two-point margin.
The Bengals opened the second half with a strong drive on the strength of a 38-yard Jeremy Hill run, but AJ McCarron was sacked for a stripped ball on the very next play. Cam Thomas recovered, and initially appeared to fumble again at the 49 only to have William Gay scoop it up for the score, but Thomas was ruled down.
Instead of a touchdown, Gay was awarded a penalty for excessive celebration, a 15-yard penalty that moved the ball all the way back to the Steelers’ own 36. Pittsburgh’s own big run, a 44-yard end around courtesy of Martavis Bryant, however, salvaged a field goal after another stalled trip into the red zone.
On the Steelers’ next possession, after a 60-yard pass to Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger hit Bryant for the 10-yard circus catch touchdown. A failed two-point conversion secured a 15-0 margin in a game that seemed increasingly safe—but that would prove to be quite wrong.
The Bengals’ final drive of the fourth quarter ended in a fumble, but Roethlisberger was dropped for a sack and a 12-yard loss on third and 18 on the final play of the third quarter, injuring his shoulder and prompting him to leave the game.
The Bengals went on to score on three consecutive drives, taking a 16-15 lead on a 25-yard touchdown pass to AJ Green, and after that, Landry Jones, who played all of the fourth quarter for the Steelers, promptly threw what appeared to be the season-ending interception to Vontaze Burfict with under two minutes to play.
Only Jeremy Hill would go on to fumble on the next play as the Bengals tried to close out the game, the ball ripped out by Ryan Shazier and recovered by Ross Cockrell at the nine-yard line. Roethlisberger, vastly limited in his arm mobility, re-entered the game, completing a fortunate third-down pass to Fitzgerald Toussaint early on the drive with under a minute to play.
Five plays later, it was fourth and three, and Roethlisberger found Brown again for 12 yards to the Bengals’ 47. On the next play, Brown was hit in the head, drawing a 15-yard penalty. An after-the-play skirmish prompted yet another penalty on the Bengals, putting the line of scrimmage at the 17-yard line.
Mike Tomlin wasted no time in sending Boswell out to hit the 35-yarder. After an eight-second return to the 24-yard line left the Bengals with just six seconds, Shazier was down the field to bat down McCarron’s desperation heave to seal the once virtually certain, and then highly improbable, first playoff victory in five years.