Just before halftime, it started to rain in Cincinnati. The precipitation did much more than slicken the football and playing surface. It ended up serving as an omen of a messy, chippy, and -- to put it simply -- dirty second half that followed, which marred what should've been an entertaining game between two AFC North rivals with serious playoff implications on the line. 

On Monday night, the Steelers beat the Bengals, 23-20. Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown made the kind of plays that only they -- two generational talents -- are capable of making. A.J. Green repeatedly torched the Steelers' defense. And the Steelers somehow found a way to overcome a 17-point deficit on the road. 

But none of those things are what this game will be remembered for -- it's not what really matters. What matters is that a Steelers-Bengals game once again devolved into the kind of game that shouldn't exist in today's NFL. It was the kind of game that made loving football difficult.

The madness peaked in the fourth quarter. With the Steelers mounting a comeback, Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster blindsided Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict with a head shot that technically served as a block. So often, Burfict is the one delivering controversial and dirty hits. But on Monday night, he was the victim of a hit so dirty, it won't be considered controversial. 

It knocked Burfict out of the game.

To make matters worse, he then stood over Burfict to taunt him.

Smith-Schuster got flagged on the play, but wasn't ejected. Burfict left the field on a stretcher after spending several minutes on the ground. He was immediately ruled out for the remainder of the game. He did appear to signal to the crowd that he was OK.

There's no question that Burfict has earned his reputation as a talented, but dirty player. But that can't be used as justification for the block he took. There's no place in football for that kind of hit and it shouldn't be considered controversial if the NFL suspends Smith-Schuster -- despite what Brown says.

But the game had to go on. The drive continued and it ended with a Steelers touchdown, when Brown came down with a six-yard grab that tied the game. It wasn't an ordinary touchdown. Not just because the catch that Brown made, but also because of the hit he suffered as he came down with the football when Bengals safety George Iloka hit Brown -- a defenseless receiver -- hard and high. 

Too high:

That hit was nowhere near as bad as Smith-Schuster's -- Iloka was at least trying to dislodge the ball to prevent a touchdown -- but it's also a hit that doesn't belong in football. Like Smith-Schuster, Iloka earned a flag on the play.  

In all, there were 20 penalties and 239 penalty yards with the Bengals responsible for 13 of those flags and 173 of those yards. It was ugly. And the ugliest part of the game didn't even happen in the fourth quarter.

A terrifying moment -- and the worst moment of the game and arguably the season -- occurred in the first quarter when Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier made a hard tackle with his head down. He didn't get back up. He immediately reached for his back and rolled over. The game was halted for several minutes.

He had to be stretchered off the field as players from both sides clearly looked concerned for Shazier.

The Steelers called it a back injury. According to reporters in Cincinnati, he immediately left the stadium in an ambulance. After the game, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn't offer much of an update.

But Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported some good news:

Shazier, drafted 15th overall in 2014, has been one of the Steelers' best defensive players for a few years now. He entered Monday night with seven sacks, seven interceptions, and 177 solo tackles since 2015. But forget about how this injury impacts the Steelers' championship hopes and Shazier's future in football. That doesn't matter much when an injury of that nature occurs. The football ramifications are overshadowed entirely by the human factor.

By the time the Steelers set up for a game-winning field goal on the game's final play after the ugly fourth quarter, it was clear: The last thing anyone needed was overtime. It needed to end. Thankfully, Chris Boswell drilled the field goal to give the Steelers an important win and hand the Bengals a devastating loss.

Read on for six takeaways from the game.

1. The Steelers still have problems

For a second straight week, the Steelers won a football game. Give them credit for overcoming a 17-0 deficit. But for the second straight week, the Steelers also played down to the level of their inferior competition, which raises the question: Can this Steelers team really beat the Patriots come January when a Super Bowl berth is at stake?

That part remains to be seen, but here's what we know: The 10-2 Steelers kept pace with the Patriots atop the AFC (with a head-to-head matchup still looming). There's no doubt that the Steelers are playoff bound. There's no doubt they're one of the better teams in a meh-at-best AFC. But they're trending in the wrong direction. And they might no longer be the team that has the best chance to topple the empire that is the New England Patriots. 

Sure, the Steelers could beat the Patriots in a couple weeks and secure home-field advantage through the postseason, but with the way they're playing, it seems more likely that they'll get roasted by the Patriots, a team that feeds on inferior opponents, unlike the Steelers. Last week, they got torched by Brett Hundley. This week, they made Andy Dalton look like the best quarterback on the field. 

They started the game with a horrible Ben Roethlisberger interception. Roethlisberger has been playing better lately -- he entered the game with 14 touchdowns, five interceptions, and a 103.6 passer rating since his meltdown in Week 5 -- but this is a throw he just can't make, especially against a team like the Patriots that won't give up huge leads. 

Some context:

For pretty much the entire first half, Roethlisberger and his receivers simply weren't on the same page. The result was a 17-3 deficit. 

But let's give the Steelers some credit for coming back. Brown and Bell were amazing down the stretch. The defense shut down the Bengals. Roethlisberger picked up his level of play. He finished with 290 yards and two touchdowns. The second half was a taste -- another tease -- of the team the Steelers can become if they can put all the pieces together.

They'll need to play better than they have in recent weeks if they're going to slip past New England. Based on that second half, we know they have the ability to do that. It just needs to happen for a full four quarters.

2. The Bengals are likely toast

Late in the first half, Dalton seemingly revived the Bengals' playoff hopes by aptly diagnosing a Steelers blitz and quickly firing a bullet in the area vacated by the blitzer and occupied by A.J. Green. The immediate result? A touchdown that put the Bengals ahead of the Steelers by 17 points late in the second quarter -- a deficit that should've been insurmountable.

It wasn't. The Bengals completely imploded after that touchdown. Never trust the Bengals to play competent football. They jumped out to a 17-0 lead over the Steelers just before halftime, but then surrendered a three-play, 71-yard drive that resulted in a field goal in the final seconds of the first half. To open up the second half, they handed the Steelers a touchdown by refusing to tackle Bell on the sideline.

This should've been a modest completion. Instead, it was a 35-yard touchdown that trimmed the deficit to seven points.

On the ensuing drive, the Bengals thought they had a deep touchdown bomb to Green. Instead, they had a holding penalty that cost them four points as they ended up settling for a field goal. Question the call all you want, but a blocker absolutely cannot reach for a pass-rusher's jersey like this, because it'll get flagged almost every time.

Down the stretch, the offense failed to get anything going and the defense wilted against Bell and Brown. Dalton's final numbers look solid -- 21 of 36 for 234 yards, two touchdowns and a 96.3 passer rating -- but the offense cratered when they desperately needed a put-away drive. And the defense ended the game by allowing three straight scoring drives:

  • Eleven plays, 74 yards, and a field goal
  • Nine plays, 80 yards, and a touchdown
  • Eight plays, 39 yards, and a field goal

As a result, the Bengals are now 5-7 and two games behind the Ravens for the final playoff spot. They're probably done in the AFC wild-card race. And they're done because, once again, Marvin Lewis' team couldn't beat the Steelers, who improved to 24-8 against Lewis' Bengals. 

On Monday night, the Bengals provided a reminder that they are still in fact the Bengals -- a deeply flawed team prone to making dumb, game-botching mistakes.

3. Bell and Brown are still ridiculous

Brown came into the game with a toe injury and his status was actually in jeopardy. About 90 minutes before kickoff, the Steelers announced that Brown would be active for the game. Immediately, questions came up: Would Brown be able to play through the injury? Would he be more of a decoy than a focal point? Could he play an entire game?

He answered those questions alright, catching eight passes for 101 yards and a touchdown. The things that he's capable of are just plain insane. Like, how is this possible?

And of course, here's that game-tying touchdown again:

Meanwhile, Bell went for 76 rushing yards on 18 carries. An example of his work: 

And he added 106 receiving yards and a touchdown on five catches. Here's that crazy touchdown again, which was admittedly handed to him by the Bengals:

The Steelers won because Bell and Brown were the two best players on the field. They combined for 283 yards and two scores.

4. The Bengals got A.J. Green going

A.J. Green is the Bengals' best receiver, but too often he fades away and disappears. That's not necessarily a criticism of Green; it's more of a criticism of the Bengals' offense. Green entered Week 13 ranked 12th in targets among all receivers. He's not the 12th-best receiver. He's a top-five receiver.

He got going against the Steelers, catching the game's first touchdown to push the Bengals' early lead to 10-0. The final result was a wide-open catch, but watch the replay to see how Green got so open.

Later, he showed off his ability to work the sideline.

His second touchdown was more about Dalton finding the opening in the defense, but Green did use a nice spin move at the goal line to avoid a hit:

Green finished with seven catches, 77 yards, and two touchdowns. Don't blame him for the loss.

5. Banged up Bengals

The Bengals suffered a few key injuries. They lost Burfict, of course. Then there's Adam Jones, who left in the first quarter after picking off Roethlisberger. He didn't return with a groin injury. Fellow cornerback Darqueze Dennard suffered a right knee injury. Rookie running back Joe Mixon left in the second quarter with a concussion. Dre Kirkpatrick is also in the concussion protocol.

The Bengals didn't just lose a game. They lost plenty of talent to injuries and now face a shorter week than usual to get ready for their next game.

6. What's next?

The Steelers get the Ravens next, which won't be an easy game considering the state of the Ravens' defense (awesome). Then they host the Patriots in one of the biggest games of the season, which could determine which of the two teams will end up with the top seed in the AFC. Spoiler alert: The Steelers need to win that game because there's no way they're beating the Patriots in Foxborough come January.

As for the Bengals, they have an easy upcoming game against the Bears before their schedule turns nasty. They close out the year against the Vikings, Lionsand Ravens. It'll take a miracle for them to make the playoffs.