It was their sixth one-and-done in the last seven seasons. And it all came down to buffoonery. Or goon-ery, if you listened to some hot takes.
Cincy was up by a point, with a first down at the Steelers 26-yard line and 1:36 to play. They were already in field goal range for kicker Mike Nugent. Pittsburgh's backup quarterback just got picked by Vontaze Burfict, with Ben Roethlisberger and a shoulder joint full of mashed potatoes standing on the sideline. One first down, and the game was likely over. Shoot, trot Nugent out there right then and the game was probably over.
Ryan Shazier's strip job on the second-year running back allowed his veteran, but injured, quarterback to get another crack at the road win. Roethlisberger, clearly injured, would be throwing a wet ball with 1:23 to play. At the nine-yard line, the Steelers were over half a football field away from Chris Boswell's range. Four short completions and a Fitzgerald Toussaint run later, they were stalled at their own 41. Cue the most unstoppable combination in the league, Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown, who calmly converted a huge fourth-and-3 to the Cincinnati 47 with 22 ticks left.
That's when all hell broke loose.
Roethlisberger went back to the well -- short again, due to the lack of any strength in that bum shoulder -- targeting Brown on a shallow cross. Vontaze Burfict led with his shoulder, but smacked Brown in the head, knocking the receiver out, while knocking Pittsburgh into field goal range. Immediate cries of dirty play would be followed by a month of debate about Burfict's dirty play. Wait, we're not done.
Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter came out on the field, presumably to check on the injured Brown. Porter is a not wide receivers coach, and he was generating more smack talk towards Bengals players than concern over Brown. That led to Pacman Jones moving briskly towards Porter, having to be restrained, but not before earning himself a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Oh boy.
Two penalties in a matter of seconds led to 30 yards of real estate for the Steelers. Now Boswell was lining up for a chip shot field goal.
If hell didn't break loose, it certainly froze over, because no one watching the final moments of our seventh top game of 2015 thought Pittsburgh would win this game. Or that Cincinnati would do everything to lose it.
(Almost) Play of the Game 1
After a mostly nondescript evening, A.J. McCarron got going with three minutes left in the fourth quarter. The second-year quarterback took advantage of fantastic field position at his own 45 yard-line, accounting for every yard on a scoring drive. McCarron went five for six for 52 yards (including a huge fourth down conversion), rushed for three yards, with the most important play being a beauty of a throw to A.J. Green from 25 yards out to put Cincy up, 16-15.
Unfortunately, the all-important two point conversion was a massive fail. The Bengals lined up with Hill to the left of McCarron, in the shotgun. Three receivers were in tight on the right side, then all went in motion to the left. This would set up, in theory, a quick pass to Hill with multiple blockers in front. All this ... from two yards away.
Hill got no blocks, but did manage to lose eight yards. So there's that.
(Almost) Play of the Game 2
Up 15-zip with seconds left in the third quarter, on third-and-18 from their own 17-yard line, most coaches would run a draw play. Avoid catastrophic plays near your end zone, thus allowing the other team back in the game, and make sure to give your punter plenty of room (i.e. no sacks).
So what did the Steelers do? Throw. Except Ben Roethlisberger never got the ball off. Burfict not only closed on the franchise quarterback, but drove him into the turf. Who knows everything it did to Roethlisberger's shoulder. He would miss two series, and it was obvious he couldn't get the ball down the field. No matter what, Burfict's clean hit was a major plot point in this game.
Martavis Bryant brought new meaning to pulling a hamstring in the third quarter, scoring the game's first touchdown by virtue of catching the ball with his hamstring. Take another look at this gem.
From the Boxscore
If you thought Burfict and Jones were the only folks committing penalties out on that field, think again. These clubs committed 221 yards worth of penalties. That is a huge number. Sloppy, playoff, football. But entertaining nonetheless.
The 2005 AFC Wild Card game between the Steelers and Bengals will always be remembered for Kimo Von Oelhoffen's hit and twist of Palmer's knee. It came on Palmer's first drop back, no less. Jon Kitna was the A.J. McCarron that day, attempting to win the first postseason affair for the Bengals in 15 years. He couldn't pull off the win.
Why This Game is No. 6
Was it the best matchup of the playoffs? No.
Was it the most exhilarating 60 minutes of football we saw all season? No.
Was there any crazier final five minutes of a contest? Absolutely not.
That's why this game belongs in the top 10. Not only was it a ridiculous stretch run in a game between two wounded teams, the ending was a one of one. Who ever saw a close to a postseason contest like that? Other than maybe the Music City Miracle, or Roger Staubach's original Hail Mary, no playoff game embodied "it ain't over until it's over" like our seventh top game of 2015.