CINCINNATI — Maybe the Pittsburgh Steelers can beat the Patriots after all — if they’ll have anyone left to play.
Pittsburgh’s ugly but resilient 23-20 win in Cincinnati on Monday night was a brutal brand of punishment, which is saying something for Steelers-Bengals. Several players took big hits, and some left the field because of them.
In the end, though, the Steelers did have a moment of glee when they rushed the field after Chris Boswell‘s game-winner from 38 yards as time expired. Boswell’s leg extended a winning streak for a second straight week, this time to seven games.
Down 17-0 late in the first half, the Steelers kept their composure, made a few timely plays and let the Bengals implode with 173 yards in penalties. Ben Roethlisberger threw two second-half TD passes in the comeback.
Antonio Brown‘s body-contorting, 6-yard touchdown catch with 3:51 left explained exactly where the Steelers are as a team. They have the talent to overcome bad starts, with Brown taking a helmet shot from George Iloka after the catch and popping up unfazed.
But, man, are they bad when they start poorly.
Sure, the image of Ryan Shazier lying on the Paul Brown Stadium turf while players were visibly shaken undoubtedly played a part in the Steelers’ uninspired first half in Cincinnati. The linebacker was carted off with a back injury and taken by ambulance to a hospital.
Still, the game was following familiar road-game script for the Steelers, who struggled to pass and struggled to cover early on.
This game felt a bit like last year’s 30-15 loss to Miami, in which several defensive backups were forced into action and couldn’t stop the bleeding. It turned into the 2016 playoff game in Cincinnati, where the hits were just as vicious and the Steelers just made fewer mistakes than Cincinnati in order to win.
The defense was showing signs of leaking before a swift second-half rebound. The Bengals offense ranked 28th in third-down conversion rate (33.6 percent) but started 7-of-12 Monday. A rushing offense that has held opponents to 76 yards per game let Cincinnati go for 122 yards through the first 50 minutes. The Bengals’ 253 yards in the first half were the most Pittsburgh allowed before halftime over the last two seasons.
But the Steelers showed signs of life in the second half, which plays to their identity for much of the second half of the season. Green went without a catch in the second half.
Le’Veon Bell pummeled Dre Kirkpatrick — who took the Bell stiff-arm six weeks earlier — on a 4th-and-1 run to set up a long drive and a field goal. Linebackers Vince Williams and Bud Dupree followed with sacks.
JuJu Smith-Schuster took the physicality too far with a vicious block with 6:59 left that elicited a targeting penalty. Vontaze Burfict was the victim — another player carted off and one of at least six key players injured in this slugfest.
The last time the Steelers overcame a deficit of 17-plus points was 2015 against the Broncos. The Bengals were a predictable culprit, having blown eight such leads in their history.
After setting up the Boswell field goal, Roethlisberger — who surpassed 50,000 yards for his career — hugged Antonio Brown as both looked exhausted.
The Steelers have a chance to finish the year on a great note. But will they have the energy to get there?