CINCINNATI — This one tops all others in terms of heartbreak. All the Bengals had to do was run out the clock and they had their playoff win.
But Jeremy Hill fumbled on the first play after the Bengals took the lead. That gave Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers the opening they needed.
Roethlisberger returned from a shoulder injury and led the Steelers to a game-winning field goal. The playoff drought goes on with 18-16 loss to the Steelers.
The Bengals are 0-7 under Marvin Lewis in the playoffs.
His team self-destructed Saturday night.
The key to the Steelers' drive was a 15-yard penalty on Vontaze Burfict for hitting a defenseless receiver and a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Adam Jones on the same play.
Backup quarterback A.J. McCarron, ineffective most of the night, led the Bengals to three unanswered scoring drives.
The Bengals seemingly clinched it when Burfict picked off Landry Jones’ first pass after the go-ahead touchdown. But Hill fumbled on the first play after the interception.
Roethlisberger, who was out with an injured right shoulder, returned after the fumble. The Steelers took over at the 9 with 1:23 to go.
The Steelers can thank Ryan Shazier for waking the Bengals
Shazier knocked Giovanni Bernard out of the game with a helmet-to-helmet hit. There was no penalty called on the play. Shazier picked up the ball and ran into the end zone. He was celebrating while Bernard lay of the turf. Hill took exception to the display and went to midfield to tell Shazier.
When it was ruled Bernard fumbled on the play, Bengal fans went nuts, throwing things on the field.
Two plays later, Burfict dropped Ben Roethlisberger with a brutal sack. Roethlisberger hurt his right (throwing) shoulder on the play and did not return.
The game turned on that play. Or so it seemed.
Burfict’s sack backed up the Steelers to their one. The Bengals took over at the Steeler 46. A 42-yard pass interference penalty set up a 1-yard Hill touchdown run.
Suddenly, it was a game at 15-7.
Jones replaced Roethlisberger. He couldn’t get the Steelers moving. The Bengals drove to a field goal that made it 15-10 with 5:12 left.
Landry went 3-and-out on his second drive. A 24-yard punt return by Adam Jones gave the Bengals the ball at Steeler 45 with 3:28 left in the game.
McCarron, who played poorly for most of the game, led the Bengals on arguably the biggest drive in franchise history.
He converted a fourth-and-2 with a pass to Marvin Jones. Two played later, McCarron hit a wide open A.J. Green for 25 yards and the score.
Some takeaways from the game:
4-POINT BREAK: William Gay’s return for touchdown was taken off the board early in the third quarter. Cam Thomas picked up a McCarron fumble. Thomas lost the ball as Clint Boling tackled him.
The referees initially ruled a fumble, which Gay picked up and returned for the TD. The call was overturned because Thomas was ruled down on the fumble.
The Steelers ended up settling for a field goal.
TURNS ON A TURNOVER: The Bengals seemed to be in business after George Iloka recovered a Markus Wheaton fumble at the 47 in the second quarter.
But after two failed plays, McCarron tried to go deep. He woefully under threw Marvin Jones. Antwon Blake picked it off and returned it 35 yards.
That set up the Steelers’ first field goal.
GOT TO CATCH IT: On the play before, the Steelers’ second field goal, Ben Roethlisberger threw one right to Vinny Rey. It went through Rey’s hands.
He’s got to catch that ball.
MISTAKES: Left tackle Andrew Whitworth had false start penalties on the first two drives of the game.
A personal foul penalty on Domata Peko wiped out a sack.
COOL IT COACH: Stuff like this only happens in the Steeler-Bengal games. Pittsburgh offensive line coach Mike Munchak was flagged for a personal foul. Munchak grabbed Reggie Nelson as Nelson chased a Steeler ball carrier out of bounds.
RUNNING BACK(WARDS): Hill's first five runs went for no gain, minus-1 yard, minus 1-yard, 2 yards and minus-3 yards.
Most of that was on the offensive line. He had nowhere to go on any of the five.
Hill broke one for 38 yards on his second carry of the second half. But one play later, McCarron fumbled.
BIG PLAY, COSTLY: Reggie Nelson blitzed on third-and-6 and sacked Roethlisberger for a 10-yard loss. It was impressive that the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Nelson got Big Ben down so easily.
The sack put the Steelers out of field goal range.
But Nelson hurt his left ankle on the play and had to leave the game.
FUMBLE: McCarron fumbled on back-to-back plays deep in inside the Bengal 20. But he recovered the first one and Boling recovered the second to avert disaster.
John Fay is freelance sports columnist. This column represents his opinion.