With a come-from-behind 28-21 win in Cincinnati, the Pittsburgh Steelers breathed life back into their playoff aspirations.
Trailing the Bengals by a point with 1:18 remaining in Sunday's game, the Steelers engineered a seven-play, 77-yard drive that Antonio Brown punctuated with a game-winning touchdown with only 10 seconds showing on the game clock. Heading into Sunday's game, the Steelers' playoff chances rested just below 35 percent, but a win over the Bengals would , according to SportsLine's simulations.
That's how much this 31-yard touchdown mattered.
Before that point, the Steelers had bumbled their way to a six-point lead that really should've been bigger. The Bengals proceeded to launch what appeared to be a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter, scoring a go-ahead touchdown with 1:18 remaining. That's when Ben Roethlisberger led a game-winning drive that involved two third-down conversions, one of which came via a penalty in the secondary, before hitting JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 23-yard gain that took the Steelers into field-goal range at the Bengals' 31-yard line.
But with Steelers kicker Chris Boswell struggling to hit his field goals with any sort of consistency during the first five weeks of the season, the Steelers needed to move closer. They couldn't run the ball up the gut and hope Boswell would convert. So, they got the ball to their best player in space. They probably weren't expecting Brown to turn a short completion into a touchdown, but that's what he did, pushing the Steelers' record to 3-2-1.
Roethlisberger threw for 369 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, and a 100.7 passer rating. James Conner submitted another impressive performance, rumbling for 111 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 5.8 yards per attempt. And Brown, while shut down for most of the game, came up with the big play when the Steelers needed one. By the way, it really says something that Brown had a quiet game and he still finished with 105 yards.
It wasn't pretty. Mistakes were made. But the Steelers went into Cincinnati and won a must-win game. That's what matters here, even if there are plenty of issues the Steelers will need to clean up. The good news is that they'll be able to make adjustments while fighting for a playoff spot instead of trying to climb their way out of a sizable hole.
On the flip side, there's no reason for the Bengals to panic. At 4-2, they're still in a playoff position. But they just let the Steelers, their nemesis, back into the AFC North race when they had a chance to bury them. Andy Dalton didn't play poorly (229 yards, two touchdowns, and a 92.3 passer rating), but the passing game as a whole stalled with Dalton averaging only 5.5 yards per attempt. The defense played good enough for most of the game, doing well to limit the Steelers to field goals in the second half, but it faltered at the most critical moment.
As a result, we now have a competitive race in the division with three of the four teams in a position to capture the North. The war is only just beginning.
Steelers mistakes keep Bengals alive
The Steelers outplayed the Bengals, but needed a late game-winning touchdown to escape with a win. For that to happen, the Steelers made avoidable mistake after avoidable mistake to keep the Bengals afloat.
On the Bengals' first scoring series, which gave them a 7-0 lead, Steelers cornerback Joe Haden dropped a gimme interception with plenty of room to run. Four plays later, the Bengals scored a touchdown.
In the second quarter, Mike Tomlin decided to challenge a spot after the officials ruled that Ryan Switzer came up a yard short of the line to gain on third down. Spot challenges are almost difficult to win. This one was no different. Tomlin didn't win it. And the Steelers punted.
At the end of the first half, the Steelers took a 14-7 lead with 1:07 remaining. They should've carried that lead into halftime, but their special teams allowed a 47-yard kickoff return to Alex Erickson, who put the Bengals on the other side of the 50. With one minute remaining in the half, the Bengals embarked upon a five-play, 44-yard scoring drive. They needed only 48 seconds to score a touchdown.
Dalton carved up the Steelers secondary with a series of short passes. There was a five-yarder to A.J. Green, nine yarders to C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Boyd, and a seven yarder to Green again. Then, Dalton found Boyd for their second touchdown of the half.
Back to Tomlin, because his waste of a challenge might've been costly. In the third quarter, with the score knotted up at 14-14, Conner appeared to score a touchdown when he bounced a carry to the outside and landed on the goal line 26 yards later. But the officials ruled that Conner was down at the 1-yard line.
Instead of challenging what appeared to be a touchdown -- perhaps because he'd already wasted one of his two challenges -- Tomlin decided to just play it out. The Steelers couldn't find a way into the end zone and they were forced to kick a field goal and settle for a three-point lead.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Steelers still led by three and faced a fourth-and-2 from the 6-yard line. Instead of keeping their offense on the field, the Steelers settled for another field goal, which gave them a six-point lead and put the Bengals in a perfect position to take a one-point lead, which they did on their ensuing drive.
Joe Mixon wasn't used enough
In what was always a one-score game, the Bengals let Dalton attempt 42 passes even though he averaged only 5.5 yards per attempt. Meanwhile, running back Joe Mixon carried the ball only 11 times even though he averaged 5.8 yards per attempt.
The Bengals' reluctance to use Mixon was best encapsulated early in the third quarter, when they faced a fourth-and-1 from the Steelers' 40-yard line. At that point in the game, Mixon was averaging 6.3 yards per carry. But, the Bengals opted to punt the ball back to the Steelers, pinning them at their own 12-yard line. It didn't matter. The Steelers marched downfield on a 12-play, 85-yard scoring drive that should've ended with a touchdown, but resulted in a field goal after Tomlin didn't challenge the Conners play at the goal line.
Mixon did at least make an impact late in the game when he scored what was nearly the game-winning touchdown.
But the Bengals could've used him more.
JuJu Smith-Schuster's incredible catch
Smith-Schuster's day began with two dropped passes in the first quarter. He made amends, though.
Late in the second quarter, with the score knotted up at 7-7, Smith-Schuster went up and plucked an interception away from Bengals cornerback Darqueze Dennard before landing on his head and tumbling into the end zone with the ball in his control.
Smith-Schuster didn't get credited with a touchdown -- he was ruled down at the 1 -- but the Steelers scored on the next play. He finished with seven catches and 111 yards, leading the team in both receptions and receiving yards.
Dennard, meanwhile, went to the locker room with a shoulder injury and didn't return.
Tyler Boyd's breakout continues
Boyd has turned into quite the weapon. He caught seven passes for 62 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in the first half.
Tyler Boyd was made for these kind of games. pic.twitter.com/lGlQ7jfxY1— Dadio McDuck (@dadiodefacto) October 14, 2018
Boyd's stat line after the first six weeks: 37 catches, 455 yards, and four touchdowns. That'll do.
Vance McDonald looked like Gronk
You might remember McDonald from that time he stiff armed Chris Conte into . But McDonald is quietly piecing together a quality season.
On Sunday, he caught seven passes for 68 yards. He looked like Gronk at times.
So far this season, McDonald has caught 20 passes for 274 yards and one touchdown. He's never going to be the focal point in an offense that also features Brown, Smith-Schuster, and Conner, but he's been a reliable option for Big Ben.
Did Burfict go after Brown?
Speaking of Burfict, he can't seem to go a game against the Steelers without generating controversy. The latest addition to his list of controversial incidents is
Brown wasn't the only one who left the field after the play. So did Burfict's teammate, Jessie Bates, who just happened to be collateral damage.
Both players returned to the game.
Conner earns Bell's approval
As Le'Veon Bell's holdout continues, Conner has filled in admirably. Conner paced the Steelers' offense on Sunday, racking up 111 yards and two touchdowns in addition to 18 yards through the air. Remember, if Tomlin had challenged that call at the goal line in the third quarter, Conner likely would've finished with a hat-trick of touchdowns.
Tomlin didn't, but at least Bell appreciated Conner's tough running.
damn james 💪🏾— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) October 14, 2018
We'll see if Bell reports to the Steelers after their bye week.
The Bengals can't relax yet. In Week 7, they'll be forced to confront the Chiefs in Kansas City. The Chiefs are entering "Sunday Night Football" as the AFC's only unbeaten team. The Bengals will face the Buccaneers in Week 8 before enjoying their Week 8 bye.
As for the Steelers, they will get to relax. In Week 7, they'll be on their bye week. Their schedule after the bye opens with a couple of divisional contests. They'll host the Browns in Week 8 and then head to Baltimore in Week 9.
You'll find our live-blog from the game below.
Thank you for joining us.