CINCINNATI, OH– The NFL’s longest playoff drought will continue for at least one more year.
The Cincinnati Bengals (5-8-1) will not go back to the postseason for a sixth consecutive season after a 24-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-4) on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
20 minutes before the Bengals-Steelers game concluded, the Ravens pulled off a 27-26 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, which officially eliminated Cincinnati from postseason contention.
With less than a one percent chance of getting into the dance prior to the game, the Bengals were really just playing for pride, facing a team that ended their season at the same venue at the start of the calendar year in one of the biggest meltdowns in NFL playoff history.
Cincinnati played prideful for 30 minutes, scoring on all four of their drives in the first half. Andy Dalton‘s one-yard quarterback sneak gave them a 10-3 lead on the last play of the first quarter. Then, Jeremy Hill capped off a 10-play/82-yard drive with a touchdown plunge that gave the Bengals a commanding 14-point advantage.
Slowly but surely, though, Pittsburgh found a way to get back in it. Paul Guenther‘s defense held the high-flying Steelers’ offense out of the end zone for nearly 53 minutes, but Ben Roethlisberger‘s 24-yard touchdown pass to Eli Rogers with 7:29 left in the game capped off an 18-0 run and put the Black & Gold up for good.
When the Bengals needed A.J Green the most, he was on the sidelines. Still nursing a sore hamstring, the 5-time Pro Bowler missed his fourth consecutive contest.
Similar to the Buffalo game at PBS over a month earlier, Cincinnati’s momentous first half was followed by abysmal third and fourth quarters. On four second-half drives, the Bengals averaged just two yards per play (19 for 38), resulting in three punts and the game’s only turnover.
Kevin Huber punted the ball away with 6:05 remaining and the Bengals’ offense never got back on the field. Roethlisberger hit tight end Ladarius Green for 28 yards to convert a third and long, and a pass interference penalty with 1:51 left on Dre Kirkpatrick allowed Pittsburgh to kneel on it the rest of the way.
Cincinnati had become accustomed to bad kicking in recent weeks. But after releasing Centerville, OH-native Mike Nugent earlier in the week, newly-signed kicker (and former Steeler) Randy Bullock nailed both of his extra points and field goal attempts. However, the special teams hero came in the form of Chris Boswell, who hit a game-winning field goal the last time he visited the Queen City.
Boswell converted all six of his field goal attempts as Pittsburgh crept back from an early double-digit hole. He became the first kicker in NFL history to ever make six field goals from 40-plus yards in one game. On top of accounting for the Steelers’ first 18 points, Boswell made a key special teams tackle that saved his team four points.
After his 49-yard field goal made it 17-6 with 5:25 left, Boswell kicked off to Alex Erickson. The undrafted rookie wide out veered left and found a seem, turning on the jets near the Steelers’ sidelines with his sights set on six. However, Boswell’s last-ditch dive barely made contact with the heel of Erickson, who took an unexpected plunge to the turf at the Pittsburgh 26.
A similar scene occurred for the Bengals’ offensive unit after the 72-yard return: inability to finish in the red zone. Cincinnati moved inside the Steelers’ 5-yard line after Rex Burkhead touched the ball on four straight plays, but an incomplete pass on third and goal set up a Bullock chip shot and Cincinnati –as they’ve done all season — left points off the board.
After 12 consecutive games with 200-plus passing yards, Dalton has been held under the 200-yard mark in back to back outings. He threw for 188 in a convincing win over Cleveland but was held to a season-low 157 yards through the air in a loss to Pittsburgh that was offensively frustrating in the second half.
Dalton could not record his second straight 4-game streak without an interception this season. Leading 20-15 in the waning seconds of the third quarter, Dalton was intercepted by a disguised Lawrence Timmons and led to Boswell’s sixth and final field goal.
The Red Rifle’s ability to spread the wealth was a big reason the Bengals rallied off back to back wins. But on Sunday, receptions were limited. Brandon LaFell caught a team-high seven passes for 91 yards but no other Bengal recorded more than two catches. Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert and rookie standout Tyler Boyd combined for just three receptions and 22 yards.
There’s no stopping Le’Veon Bell, but the Bengals did its best to contain him. Bell’s 4-game streak of 100-yard rushing performances came to a halt with Cincinnati holding him to 93 on 23 attempts. Bell did add five catches for 38 yards and has now tallied 100-plus all-purpose yards in six straight games.
Jeremy Hill had his fun with ripping and stomping on a terrible towel after his second-quarter touchdown run, but in the end Pittsburgh got the last laugh. The LSU-product ran for just 43 yards on 20 carries, marking the eighth time this season he’s been held under 50 yards rushing.
Hill needs 169 yards on the ground over the next two games to record his second 1,000-yard season. He will face the Texans and Ravens, who rank 16th and 2nd, respectively, against the run this year.
The inevitable finally occurred. The Bengals, who were clinging to the tiniest bit of playoff hope, were taken out of contention at the hands of a dreaded rival.
It’s uncharted waters for a team that has played meaningful games in December/January for the last five seasons. But, the show must go on. Thanks to wins by the Panthers and Saints this week, the Bengals actually moved into the top 10 in terms of current NFL Draft order.
However, Cincinnati can still play the role of spoiler in the last two weeks of the regular season. They will face a pair of 8-win teams that are trying to capture their respective division titles.
The Bengals head to Houston to battle the division-leading Texans on Christmas Eve with kickoff scheduled for 8:25 p.m.