Both offenses have struggled in this game, but in large part because of a turnover, the Pittsburgh Steelers bring a 6-0 lead into halftime over the Cincinnati Bengals on the strength of two Chris Boswell field goals. Antwon Blake recorded an interception to set the Steelers up to score. They closed the half with two field goal drives, though Ben Roethlisberger nearly threw an interception near the goal line.
Markus Wheaton also lost a fumble after the ball popped out upon trying to balance himself after avoiding a tackler after a catch, but he came back to make a big reception that helped lead to the second field goal. AJ McCarron, meanwhile, for the Bengals, has struggled, and the running game has been well-contained.
Both teams are a combined 3-16 on third down, with both teams contributing several three-and-out drives. The Steelers have had some success running with Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman, however. They lost Will Johnson to a hamstring injury, ruled doubtful to return. The Bengals lost safety Reggie Nelson for the rest of the game, and Dre Kirkpatrick finished the half off the field with a quad injury.
The Bengals begin the second half with the ball, hoping to overcome the 6-0 deficit.
After a pair of touchbacks in the first half, Boswell’s first kickoff to open the third quarter was returned, with Vince Williams making the tackle at the 18. Jeremy Hill picked up about two yards on first down. On second and eight, William Gay hammered Marvin Jones after a short reception that set up a third and three. McCarron scrambled to his right to hit Mohamed Sanu for the first down.
From the 33, McCarron overthrew the pass down the field, with Antwon Blake getting a hand on it over the shoulder in an attempt to deflect the ball down to himself. But Hill made a nice cut to get out to the right sideline for a big 38-yard gain, beating Blake and following a downfield block down to the 29. On the following play, Jarvis Jones got through Andrew Whitworth to hit McCarron’s hand, knocking the ball loose for a strip sack. Cam Thomas picked the ball up and ran with it, tackled but with the ball loose, picked up and returned by William Gay for the touchdown. Upon review, Thomas was ruled down at the 49-yard line, but a 15-yard celebration penalty on Gay after the touchdown pushed the Steelers all the way back to their own 36-yard line.
On the first play after the turnover, Martavis Bryant took an end around and reversed field for a big gain of 44 yards down to the 20. Kirkpatrick returned, but left after that play. Jordan Todman‘s first play of the half was a four-yard gain made able by a jump cut back inside. Todman was stopped after a short gain to set up third and long. Roethlisberger looked deep to Darrius Heyward-Bey on third down, but Jones was in good coverage, as the Steelers offense settled for yet another field goal attempt. Boswell’s 34-yard attempt was good, and gave the Steelers a 9-0, two-possession lead.
Boswell’s fourth kickoff was lined deep and through the back of the end zone, recording a touchback for the third time in the game. James Harrison made the run stop on first down for no gain. McCarron hit AJ Green down the sideline for 22, however.
From the 42, Will Allen got to Bernard at the line of scrimmage, making the tackle for a short loss. Lawrence Timmons crushed McCarron on a blitz, but got the throw off, with Bernard dropping the pass. On third and 11, he was chased out of the pocket and threw the ball away, settling for a punt. Antonio Brown called for a fair catch at the 18 to open the half on offense.
From the 18, Toussaint cut up the right side for a nice gain of about six, as Wallace Gilberry for the Bengals remained down. On second down, Roethlisberger handed off on the draw, with Toussaint finding space for another six or so to move the sticks. From the 30, he hesitated a bit too much behind the line, stopped for no gain. Roethlisberger hit Brown on the blitz beater with daylight, racing by two receivers and using his blockers to pick up 60 yards down to the 10-yard line.
On first and goal, Toussaint could not get back to the line of scrimmage. A scrum with David DeCastro at the bottom of the pile on the goal line broke out, but no flags were thrown. He wrestled Vontaze Burfict down to the ground. On second down, Roethlisberger hit Bryant for the touchdown. He caught it with his hands, then tucked it onto the back of his right thigh while flipping out of bounds. On the two-point conversion attempt, Roethlisberger threw a bit too sharp for Wheaton, hoping to make it a three-possession game. Instead, it remains 15-0.
Following the score, Boswell sent another kickoff down for a touchback. On first down, McCarron fired a quick out to Green for the first down, with Gay shoving him out of bounds. Another check to Bernard bounced off his hands, but a defensive hold made it a first down. Mike Mitchell had to undercut Bernard for a first-down run that could have been more, down to the 48.
Shazier made the tackle up the middle for no gain, but he was flagged for a facemask penalty, pushing the ball past midfield. After the penalty, the Bengals took over at the 35. A screen to Sanu was dropped. On second down, Shazier did an excellent job of weaving through traffic to make the tackle on a screen pass to Tyler Eifert, holding it to a gain of seven. On third and three, McCarron completed to Sanu with Boykin in coverage, getting four.
From the 24, Bernard was stopped after a yard off the right tackle. Shazier’s blitz forced a hurried pass from McCarron for an incompletion, setting up third and nine. Shazier laid out Bernard on a big hit, with the running back staying down, resulting in a helmet-to-helmet hit, but he was already a runner. After the play, Hill looked to take on a large continent of the Steelers team in support of his battery mate.
Mike Tomlin challenged the play, arguing that the ball was out before Bernard was down and clearly recovered by the Steelers. The challenge was successful, awarding the Steelers possession where Shazier recovered the fumble, at the 25-yard line, keeping the shutout streak intact late in the third quarter. Cody Wallace was flagged for holding on the play, backing Pittsburgh up to the 15.
On first and 20 now, Roethlisberger handed off from the shot gun to Todman for a two-yard pickup. Roethlisberger’s pass down the field to Wheaton was well beyond all players, with the corner doing well to pin the receiver to the sideline. On third and 18, he was sacked deep near his own goal line by Burfict, landing hard on his shoulder and favoring it as he left the field, something to monitor going forward. Landry Jones figures to open the next drive barring something unforeseen.
On fourth and 30, to open the fourth quarter, Jordan Berry booted a short punt, but benefited from a friendly roll, downed at the 46-yard line of the Steelers’.
On first down, McCarron misfired to his tight end covered by Timmons. On second down, Green nearly came up with the deep ball, broken up by Allen, but the safety was flagged for pass interference. Allen was caught flat-footed on the throw and was late turning and running. The Bengals, as a result, got first and goal from the four. Bringing in extra linemen, Hill bounded forward for three yards, with Williams on the tackle. On second and goal from one yard out, he punched it in over the right side, making it a 15-7 game with 14 minutes to play.
After a touchback, Jones entered to relieve Roethlisberger, in the process of getting x-rays. His first pass was tipped at the line for an incompletion as he tried to check down to his running back. Todman showed excellent burst on a 25-yard run through a hole on second down, however. The ball was batted out of bounds. From the 45, Toussaint pushed forward for four yards himself. On second down, Jones was swallowed deep behind the line for a long sack, a loss of 11 yards. On third and 17, the Steelers just hoped for something on a screen pass to Bryant, which went for a couple before he got out of bounds.
Berry’s punt was fair caught at the 13-yard line, the drive at least managing to put the defense in a favorable spot in terms of defending field position, but with 11 minutes to play and with a one-score deficit, the offense may need to produce more points to secure this game.
A screen to Hill was able to pick up about 11 to the 24-yard line. A dump off pass to Hill picked up another 13 yards to the 37-yard line. He left the field after falling down at the end of the reception. Rex Burkhead got the carry up the middle for four yards. On second down, McCarron took off running, getting to the first-down marker and out of bounds to the 47-yard line.
Hill checked back in after missing two plays. McCarron had Eifert wide open in the middle of the field, but the tight end dropped the high pass, and Mitchell failed to scoop up the potential interception. On second down, McCarron scrambled up the middle and pinned down after a short gain to set up a third and nine. Following a timeout, Eifert made a spectacular catch down the field for 18 yards as McCarron got the ball out ahead of a double A gap blitz.
A nine-yard reception to Green on the following play kept the drive moving. On second and one at the 25, Hill picked up the first down with under seven minutes remaining. Hill backed up after contact for about two yards to the 22. Jones was the target on the incomplete second down pass. On third and eight, McCarron had to check down to Burkhead, who was held three yards short of the first down. Mike Nugent was sent on the field to attempt a 36-yard field goal, which was good to make it a 15-10 game.
Roethlisberger returned to the sideline following the Bengals’ drive, looking to give it another go with the game on the line and the Steelers up just five with a bit over five minutes to play.
After a touchback, however, it was Jones coming out to lead the offense, much to the delight of the Cincinnati crowd. Jones threw complete to Brown on first down for a six-yard gain. Todman was fortunate just to get back near the line of scrimmage on second down. With three tight ends on the field, Jones’ pass hit the back of Leon Hall on a deep target to Brown. Berry’s punt was returned by Jones 24 yards to the Steelers’ 45-yard line. The Bengals have 3:28 on the clock with two timeouts in hand if they wish to settle for a field goal in a fourth-down situation.
Against a four-man rush, McCarron had to get off a jump pass under pressure, resulting in a three-yard gain. On second and seven, the catch was made by Jones for six yards. On third and one, after a lot of pre-snap motion, the blitz got McCarron out of the pocket to force a throwaway pass, with Shazier on the pressure. On fourth and what is closer to two, Jones was wide open for the easy reception, left uncovered off the blitz to the 28.
On first down, McCarron was chased up into the pocket, scrambling to avoid a sack while picking up three yards to close on the two-minute warning.
From the 25, McCarron misfired incomplete. On third and seven, Green burned past Gay down the left sideline, with McCarron hitting him, Mitchell too late to keep him out of the end zone to take a one-point lead. The disastrous two-point conversion, however, kept a field goal in play to secure a victory. The Steelers have 1:50 to play with three timeouts to score.
Wheaton returned for the first time of the game, but was smothered near the 15-yard line as the return took up seven seconds. From the 14, Jones immediately threw the seemingly season-ending interception to Burfict targeting Wheaton.
On the first play from scrimmage, Hill was fighting for extra yardage as Shazier stripped the ball loose, improbably recovered by the Steelers deep in their own end, but at least giving the road team a lifeline with less than 90 seconds remaining, but all three timeouts.
Ben Roethlisberger returned to the field following the fumble recovery, taking over at the nine with 1:23 to play. On first down, Bryant cut up inside the field to pick up eight yards inbounds. On second and two, Brown could not hold on to the pass. On third down, Toussaint made a beautiful adjustment to catch a pass from Roethlisberger for seven yards and the first, out of bounds.
From the 24, another completion to Toussaint picked up 10 yards as the Steelers used their first timeout. Roethlisberger threw incomplete under pressure on the following play, looking to hit Gilberry’s helmet. On second down, a screen to Bryant was limited to just three yards. Toussaint was just barely tripped up by Michael Johnson on a draw run from Toussaint that should have been a first down. Instead, it set up fourth and three with 28 seconds and one timeout remaining. Five wide, Roethlisberger hit Brown for the first down, quickly using the final timeout with 22 seconds left at the Bengals’ 47.
On first down, Roethlisberger zipped a sharp pass into double coverage to Brown incomplete, but Burfict hit Brown in the head, drawing a 15-yard penalty. Brown stayed down after taking the sharp hit to the head, certainly raising concerns. After all of the commotion, a scrum ensued, drawing a second flag on Jones, a second personal foul that put the ball not just in field goal range, but at the 17-yard line. Boswell came on immediately with 18 seconds to play, making the glorified extra point to give the Steelers the 18-16 lead with 14 seconds remaining.
Boswell’s final kickoff of the game was fielded five yards deep, tackled near the 25 after an eight-second long return, leaving six seconds on the clock and no timeouts remaining. From the 24-yard line, McCarron’s desperation bomb was smartly batted straight into the ground by Shazier right in front of the nearest Bengals receiver to secure Pittsburgh’s first playoff victory since the 2010 AFC Championship game, and continuing a streak that has lasted since 1972 during which the team has won at least one postseason game in every five-year span.