Mike Tomlin may have publicly challenged his Pittsburgh Steelers to toughen up ahead of their Week 15 showdown with their AFC North rivals, but the result on Monday night was not pretty. With a chance to secure a firm place atop the division, the Steelers instead went backward in a hurry, watching as a hapless offensive first half gifted the Bengals early scores, as a wholly off-target Ben Roethlisberger gave Cincinnati repeated bursts of momentum, and as a 2-10-1 team thoroughly outplayed a supposed 11-2 contender, logging a 27-17 victory to throw a serious wrench into the AFC playoff picture.
The Bengals' stunning win, fueled in part by a motivated defensive effort and also by some occasional Ryan Finley heroics, not only ends a streak of Steelers wins over Cincy at 12 straight matchups but gives the Kansas City Chiefs a serious leg up in the AFC, where only the No. 1 seed gets a first-round bye in the postseason. It also raises some serious questions about Roethlisberger's short- and long-term effectiveness under center, where he's struggled to generate much rhythm for a slumping Pittsburgh team.
Here's a closer look at how the Bengals beat the Steelers for the first time since 2015.
Why the Bengals won
While it only had one sack, Cincinnati's defense put consistent pressure on Roethlisberger, who completed a mere 53% of his throws. Specifically, defensive end Carl Lawson, who recorded the Bengals' lone sack of Roethlisberger, had his way against Pittsburgh's two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
On offense, the Bengals gashed Pittsburgh's run defense to the tune of 152 yards on 41 carries. And while Giovani Bernard (83 yards, two touchdowns) did most of the damage, the game's biggest run was turned in by quarterback Ryan Finley, who did not commit a turnover against Pittsburgh's ball-hawking defense.
Finley took advantage of the Steelers' ravaged linebacker corps. On the Bengals' final touchdown, Finley's perfectly executed play fake drew in rookie outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, who was playing in place of injured starter Bud Dupree. Finley then ran through Highsmith's vacated space and into the end zone.
Why the Steelers lost
For the first time in three weeks, the Steelers can't blame this loss on drops. They can blame it on their three turnovers, a 25% success rate on third down and a substandard run defense. A considerable amount of blame can be placed on Roethlisberger, who struggled with his consistency. He also failed to find the open receiver on numerous occasions.
The Steelers' rushing attack also continues to be non-existent. Despite Benny Snell's 84 rushing yards, Pittsburgh failed to rush for 100 yards as a team for the seventh time in its last eight games. The Steelers have not had a 100-yard rusher since James Conner did so against the Browns back in Week 6.
And while it's hard to blame losses on bulletin board material, JuJu Smith-Schuster's new pregame dance routine is not a good look, and it clearly fired up Vonn Bell, whose first quarter hit on Smith-Schuster set up the tone for the game.
After they were outscored 10-0 in the third quarter, the Bengals started the fourth quarter with a nine-play, 80-yard drive that was capped off by Finely's touchdown run. The drive included 34 yards on six carries by Bernard, who enjoyed his best rushing performance since Week 16 of the 2017 season.
Play of the game
Bell, who took exception to Smith-Schuster's pre-game routine, forced a fumble after hitting Smith-Schuster on a crossing route at the end of the first quarter. The fumble set up the game's first touchdown, as Cincinnati took a 10-0 second quarter lead.
The Steelers' best play was turned in by Diontae Johnson, whose third quarter touchdown got Pittsburgh on the board. The score was set up by Chase Claypool's 37-yard-catch and run.
Steelers defensive Stephon Tuitt delivered on his pregame promise to honor Kevin Greene with his third quarter sack of Finley. Before the game, it was announced that Greene, who also wore No. 91 during his Hall of Fame career, passed away Monday at the age of 58.
"I think we've known for a long time [that we can beat the Steelers]. We've had nine shots at the Steelers. I had a shot last year. Feels good to get it done. All-around awesome team performance, one we're definitely going to celebrate." -- Finley, during his postgame interview with ESPN, when asked when his team knew that they could beat the Steelers, who had actually defeated the Bengals 10 consecutive times dating back to the 2015 season
The Steelers will host the 10-4 Colts in what could possibly be a playoff preview. The Bengals will travel to Houston to face the Texans, who fell to 4-10 after dropping their third consecutive game to the Colts this past Sunday.