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Steelers overcome adversity, rally to defeat Bengals

Steelers kicker Chris Boswell drilled a 38-yard field goal as time expired, leading Pittsburgh (10-2) to a 23-20 comeback victory over the Cincinnati Bengals (5-7) in a bone-jarring Week 13 clash. Here's what we learned in Monday night's action:

  1. This AFC North grudge match was played under a figurative pall, as the Steelers were visibly shaken after watching defensive leader Ryan Shazier placed on a backboard, carted off the field and sent by ambulance to a local hospital for evaluation of a back injury sustained on the second possession of the evening. In tears for his fellow inside linebacker, Vince Williams was consoled by teammates in the moments after the injury. While Pittsburgh struggled to adjust for the next two quarters, Cincinnati took advantage with a 17-3 halftime lead featuring a 253-126 edge in net yards. It was perhaps the Bengals' most complete half of football in two years.
  1. The Steelers found their bearings in the second half, however, reversing the statistical domination. As Ben Roethlisberger found his groove in the fourth quarter, All-Pros Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown each cleared the century mark in receiving yards, imposing their will on an injury-depleted defense. The final frame was pure Pittsburgh supremacy, resulting in a touchdown and a pair of field goals on 158 yards for the offense while the defense limited Cincinnati to a paltry 13 yards with three punts on three game-altering possessions. Riding a seven-game winning streak over the past two months, the Steelers are now 12-3 in 15 contests versus the Bengals since the dawn of the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green era in 2011.
  1. Former Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth once told the Cincinnati Enquirer that this smashmouth matchup had an internecine effect late in the season, causing both teams to lose key players for weeks afterward. In addition to Shazier's injury, Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict went down three times, ultimately getting carted off the field in the fourth quarter after taking a vicious crackback block from JuJu Smith-Schuster. Prior to Burfict's exit, Cincinnati had lost rookie running back Joe Mixon to a concussion and cornerback Adam Jones to a groin injury. The physical bout featured a staggering ten 15-yard penalties, including a series of blows to the helmet. The Bengals were flagged 13 times for a franchise-record 173 penalty yards. Both outfits will enter the season's crucial stretch run weaker for the brutal ballgame.
  1. It was a tale of two halves for the Dalton-to-Green connection that produced a pair of touchdowns, leading to the halftime benching of Coty Sensabaugh, a stand-in for injured cornerback Joe Haden. Overcoming a few early misfires downfield in the wind and rain, Dalton showed impressive intermediate accuracy en route to his best half of passing this season. Although Green finished with seven catches for 77 yards and the two scores, he lost a 61-yard touchdown to a Giovani Bernard holding penalty and beat Sensabaugh twice more only to watch Dalton's errant throws fall by the wayside. Green was shut out in the second half, though, as Dalton managed just one field-goal drive versus four futile possessions that ended in punts.
  1. Green wasn't the only playmaker to have a long touchdown nullified in an ugly game pockmarked by penalties and illegal hits. Martavis Bryant's 96-yard kickoff return was taken off the board due to a J.J. Wilcox holding infraction. Antonio Brown had Dre Kirkpatrick beat for a 50-yard touchdown only to settle for a 38-yard pass interference penalty that cost the Steelers four points entering halftime. Brown would have added a 35-yard touchdown had he not lost control of the ball when his body hit the ground early in the third quarter.

One play later, Bell scored on his own 35-yard jaunt when Bengals defenders Jordan Evans, William Jackson and Josh Shaw bizarrely watched the running back skate down the sideline without knocking him out of bounds. "I have not seen that ever," ESPN color commentator Jon Gruden said, reacting in disbelief to the confusion bordering on defensive indifference.

  1. Finishing with 101 yards and a touchdown on eight catches, Brown has bypassed Colts legend Marvin Harrison for the most receptions by any player (569) in a five-year span. On pace for 1,685 yards and a dozen scores on 114 receptions, Brown ranks behind only the quarterback trio of Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Carson Wentz in Around The NFL's MVP watch.
  1. The NFL's rushing leader with 1,057 yards on 270 carries, Bell also reclaimed the top spot from Todd Gurley in yards from scrimmage (1,559). Staked to a two-game lead over the Titans and Jaguars for a playoff bye, the Steelers should seriously consider lightening the load of a workhorse running back on pace for a staggering 437 touches this season. They're going to need a fresh Bell to get the Bill Belichick monkey off their backs in January.
  1. Speaking of those Patriots, the Steelers' mettle will be tested over the next two weeks in home bouts with Baltimore and New England. As impressive as Pittsburgh's defense was in the final two quarters versus Cincinnati, issues are mounting with Pro Bowler Shazier injured, Sensabaugh exposed as a liability and inconsistent production from the edge-rushing tandem of Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt.
  1. Monday night's second-half collapse all but dashes Cincinnati's slim playoff hopes. At 5-6 entering Monday night's affair, Football Outsiders' metrics gave the Bengals just a 4.2 percent chance of capturing a wild-card bid. Now two games behind 7-5 Baltimore for the sixth seed, Marvin Lewis needs a miracle to salvage the season.
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