And so ends the 2012 Lombardi Trophy dreams of a team that habitually goes to bed with such silvery thoughts. Instead, the Steelers will awake for the rest of 2012 and eight months of the new year with the foreign notion that they have become, at least for one season, mediocre ... or worse.
The Cincinnati Bengals ousted Pittsburgh from the previously crowded playoff picture and put themselves in rare position -- their first back-to-back postseason appearances in some 30 years -- with a 13-10 victory at Heinz Field on Sunday.
The Bengals (9-6, 2-3 in AFC North) were giddy with a win that gave coach Marvin Lewis his sixth career victory -- five with the Bengals -- over the Steelers, the team he left to go to Cincinnati. Lewis' decision to go for a 56-yard field goal with three minutes remaining nearly backfired -- the Steelers' Shaun Suisham also missed soon after -- and afterward, Lewis said, “I told them thanks for bailing me out, plain, flat and simple.”
It was kicker Josh Brown who bailed the Bengals out in the end, making the game-winning 43-yard field goal with four seconds left “It's very satisfying, quite honestly," Brown said. "It's a good Christmas.”
Cincinnati, in addition to consecutive playoff berths, clinched their first back-to-back winning seasons in 30 years. That had been the longest drought in the NFL.
“It's a big win for the city of Cincinnati,” Lewis said. “I know they just think that there's some [inferiority] complex. There's no complex. This group in there has very little history of anything” ... except two winning years.
Meantime, the Steelers (7-8, 2-3 in AFC North) were circumspect, morose and self-blaming.
“We should be [in the playoffs] if it wasn't for me,” QB Ben Roethlisberger said after throwing an interception for a touchdown and another that resulted in Brown's game-winning field goal. He was 14 for 28, sacked four times and less than the franchise quarterback all expected in such a big game. The fate of the reinvented 2012 Steelers was essentially placed upon his shoulders, and he injured one of them -- well, Kansas City injured one, anyway. Roethlisberger went 5-6 in games he finished. He has lost three in a row since returning from that injury.
“We just weren't on the same page the whole year," WR Mike Wallace said. “For all the potential we have on the team to be the best, we were not able to put it together. It's been all year, man.”
When the game turned: With the offenses going a combined 5 for 28 on third-down conversions (17.8 percent), the game turned on a big defensive play. Tied late in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger tried to hit Wallace while moving and instead completed the pass to Bengals S Reggie Nelson, who returned it to the Steelers' 46. One 21-yard pass from Andy Dalton to A.J. Green later, and Cincinnati was in range for Brown's game-winning field goal. Roethlisberger's first interception was returned 17 yards by Leon Hall for a touchdown -- the Bengals' lone touchdown of the game.
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Highlight reels: Defense deserves a bow. Both quarterbacks ended with a 58 passer rating, and neither offense broke 280 yards. Steelers LB Lawrence Timmons had 10 tackles, including two sacks. Bengals DT Geno Atkins had 2.5 sacks.
• Bengals defense -- Cincinnati allowed just a 60-yard Antonio Brown catch-and-run for a touchdown. It was only the sixth touchdown they've given up in their past seven games, a span in which opponents are averaging 12.1 points.
• Bengals DT Atkins -- 6 tackles, 2 hurries, forced fumble and 2.5 sacks. He has 13 sacks, the most by an NFL defensive tackle in the past 10 years.
• Bengals WR Green -- Tied a career-high with 10 catches, good for 116 yards, including a 21-yarder to set up the game-winning field goal.
• Steelers CB Keenan Lewis -- 6 tackles, and held receivers he covered to fewer than 100 yards despite a bad hip and knee.
What they said about Green's 21-yard catch to set up game-winning field goal:
• Bengals WR Green -- “It was just a corner route. Andy laid the ball up there, and I just tried to make the play, and we got in close enough for a field goal.”
• Bengals QB Dalton -- “You have 14 seconds left. You need to get at least a first down, if not more. Great play call. They weren't on him. They were soft. He was able to cross the corner's face [Keenan Lewis], and when he did that, I was able to put the ball in a spot where only A.J. could play the play. We did exactly what we wanted.”
• Steelers S Ryan Clark -- “It was a Pro Bowl player making a big play.”
• Steelers CB Cortez Allen -- “I got to get deeper to help out there on the corner. That's something I got to [improve]. I didn't play a perfect game, by no means.”
On Steelers being eliminated from the playoffs:
• Steelers ILB Larry Foote -- “It hurts more here. We're used to winning. We got guys with multiple Super Bowl rings. Every year we come into camp in Latrobe thinking Lombardi. That's our mindset. We got the athletes to do it, we just didn't get it done.”
On Steelers QB Roethlisberger's interception that led to the game-winning score:
• Steelers QB Roethlisberger: “You saw it. I threw it to them.”
Numbers you should know: Steelers K Suisham missed two field goals, his most in a game since going 2 of 4 in 2009 when he was with Washington. ... The errant snap on Suisham's 24-yard field goal was the first this season, and it resulted in Suisham's first miss inside 50 yards in 26 attempts. ... If the Steelers lose to Cleveland next week, it would be the franchise's first losing season since 2003 and their second in 13 seasons. ... Cincinnati P Kevin Huber netted 48.3 yards per punt in six attempts.
Going forward: Steelers -- The Steelers end the season Sunday at home against Cleveland. Bengals -- The Bengals prepare for the playoffs with a visit to the Ravens.
Follow Paul Dehner Jr. for Bengals updates on Twitter at @CBSBengals.