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Steelers narrowly escape Cincinnati with win

Ben Roethlisberger came out of the locker room to lead an incredible game-winning field-goal drive, lifting the Pittsburgh Steelers to an 18-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Here's what you need to know:

  1. This game between two bitter AFC North rivals had more plot twists than a 19th century Russian novel, with Vontaze Burfict playing the anti-hero role to perfection. The Bengals' firebrand linebacker was in the middle of the action all night. He changed the complexion of the game, sending Roethlisberger to the locker room with a 12-yard sack on the last play of the third quarter. The Steelers had been in total command to that point, leading 15-0 and utterly stifling AJ McCarron's offense. A deep pass interference penalty and Pittsburgh's switch to a prevent defense stoked Cincinnati's comeback with 16 fourth-quarter points.

Just when it appeared that Burfict had sealed the unlikely victory with a spectacular interception to shut down any prayers of a successful two-minute drill for backup quarterback Landry Jones, Jeremy Hill fumbled the ball back to Pittsburgh. After leaving a helmeted Roethlisberger on the sidelines in favor of Jones the previous two series, the Steelers turned back to their starter for a desperation spark with just 1:23 remaining. Minus his fastball, Roethlisberger led the offense into Cincinnati territory when Burfict struck again, drawing a penalty for a brutal cheap shot to the head of a defenseless Antonio Brown. Adam Jones lost his cool in the aftermath, sticking the Bengals with a combined 30 yards in penalties in a complete breakdown of discipline with the game on the line. Chris Boswell connected on a chip-shot field goal the very next play, propelling Pittsburgh to victory and closing out one of the most bizarre fourth quarters in postseason history.

  1. Beyond Roethlisberger's Willis Reed-like heroics and Burfict's internecine antics, this game featured scuffles, drive-killing personal fouls and several big hits. Bengals fans booed an injured Roethlisberger and threw a beer can into the cart that was hauling him to the locker room. Steelers assistant coach Mike Munchak was penalized for grabbing Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson's dreadlocks on the sideline. Joey Porter, another Pittsburgh assistant, was in the middle of the field during Jones' critical post-play penalty. Giovani Bernard was concussed on a vicious Ryan Shazier hit. Brown was concussed on the Burfict blow. Nelson and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick also left with injuries.

To top it off, Roethlisberger's status is up in the air for the Divisional Round bout with the Broncos. This clash was so brutal that the Steelers might end up too battered to put their best foot forward in Denver.

  1. Much like the Texans earlier in the day, the Bengals couldn't overcome their disadvantage at quarterback for three quarters. McCarron struggled mightily with ball security in a steady rain, fumbling three times and losing his grip on a rainbow interception. One game after McCarron failed to convert a single third-down in the regular-season finale, his offense entered halftime with just two first downs. He was far from the only problem on offense, however. The Steelers dominated the line of scrimmage and shut down the Bengals' ground attack. It took an A.J. Green 42-yard pass interference to set up a short Jeremy Hill touchdown and end Cincinnati's streak of 75 consecutive postseason minutes without a score. The Bengals certainly missed Andy Dalton under center. They were the better all-around team for three months prior to Dalton's fractured thumb.
  1. Credit the Steelers' defense for late-season improvement, led by rangy inside linebackers Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons. Shazier was the defensive star of the game, blowing up several plays near the line of scrimmage, notching two passes defensed and recording 13 tackles. More impressively, he saved the Steelers' season by forcing Hill's game-turning fumble one quarter after forcing Bernard's fumble. The run defense, especially, is hitting its stride in January.
  1. For all of the concern over DeAngelo Williams' ankle injury, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman combined for 183 yards from scrimmage against a Cincinnati defense playing off the line of scrimmage to stop Pittsburgh's deep aerial attack. Toussaint impressed as a receiver and Todman broke off several big plays as a runner. If Williams is unavailable next week, the Steelers have reason to believe their backfield is in good hands. That could change if Landry Jones starts at quarterback, enticing Denver's linebackers and safeties into the box.
  1. Martavis Bryant had the catch of the season, pinning the ball with one hand behind his knee while flipping rump-over-teakettle for a 10-yard touchdown. Responding to Roethlisberger's mid-week challenge, Bryant also broke off an impressive 44-yard run to set up a field goal, staking the Steelers to a 9-0 lead early in the third quarter.
  1. Hill accepted responsibility for his game-changing fumble, writing on his Twitter page: "This one's on me ... This city this organization deserves better only thing to do is continue to fight and come back stronger." Hill's ball security has been an issue throughout the season, but there is plenty of blame to go around in Cincinnati.
  1. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap put the evening into perspective. "We bit the cheese, took the bait," Dunlap said, via NFL Media's Kimberly Jones. "The Bengals beat the Bengals."
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