The Cincinnati Bengals had a chance to exorcise a lot of demons from the last 30 years against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bengals also had a chance to get in position to be the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.
The Bengals fell flat, like they have in so many road games this year.
The Steelers throttled the Bengals 30-20 on Sunday night, buoyed by two huge early special teams miscues by Cincinnati. Bengals punter Kevin Huber fumbled a snap before getting tackled at the 1-yard line after one series, and Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown later in the first quarter.
Huber's jaw was broken on Brown's touchdown. It was that kind of night for Cincinnati. The Bengals also lost linebacker James Harrison to concussion symptoms, tight end Jermaine Gresham hurt his hip and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick limped off the field late in the game.
Now 9-5, the Bengals are stuck back in the No. 3 slot in the AFC playoff picture. They blew a great chance to earn a bye, and have given the Baltimore Ravens a chance to win the AFC North. The Ravens can win the division if they manage to win their final three games despite a very challenging schedule. Baltimore and Cincinnati face off in Week 17.
A playoff bye and a potential home game in the divisional playoff round would be huge for the Bengals because they are a different team on the road. They finished their road schedule on Sunday night with a 3-5 record. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, kept its faint playoff hopes alive to get to 6-8.
This result told us more about the Bengals. They have made progress this year, but they still have an erratic passing game at best. Quarterback Andy Dalton averaged 5.2 yards per passing attempt, failing to get big plays against a defense that gives up a ton of them.
Cincinnati's great defense has been ravaged by injuries. There's no reason to think it will start suddenly playing better on the road once the playoffs start.