With a chance to wrap up the AFC North, the Pittsburgh Steelers instead found disaster in the form of an inspired Cincinnati Bengals bunch. Jumping out to a 17-point first-half lead, the Bengals were led by a tenacious defense and the offensive play of quarterback Ryan Finley and running back Giovani Bernard as they stunned the Steelers with a massive 27-17 Monday night upset. Once the last undefeated team in the league, the Steelers lost their third game in a row, while the Bengals snapped a five-game losing skid.
1) There is celebration in Cincinnati and panic in Pittsburgh. With their third-string quarterback Ryan Finley and their third-down back Giovani Bernard leading the way, the Bengals shook up the NFL world for a second consecutive day with their upset of the Steelers. A day removed from the New York Jets turning the NFL universe on its head with a startling win over the L.A. Rams, the Bengals (3-10-1) had jaws dropped and eyebrows raised for 30 minutes of first-half play as they flirted with another shocking upset. The Bengals came out to play, looking the best they have since Joe Burrow's season-ending injury deflated the team back in Week 11. They were hitting hard and Bernard scored a pair of touchdowns to help build a 17-0 lead. But when the Steelers (11-3) responded with a score on their first second-half drive, that seemed to be the first shot in the comeback. However, Cincy showed resolve, keyed by Finley, who was filling in for the injured Brandon Allen, who was filling in for Burrow. With the Steelers having cut the deficit to 17-10, Finley burst though the middle of the Steelers' stellar defense for a 23-yard touchdown run. Finley only had seven completions and 89 yards passing, but he had two total touchdowns and no huge mistakes. This is only the fifth win in coach Zac Taylor's time with the Bengals and it's by far the largest, as it ends an 11-game losing streak against the archrival Steelers and a five-game slump this season. And it came without Burrow and in front of a prime-time audience. This game will grab notice for the continuation of the Steelers' stumbles, but this night belonged to the Bengals.
2) The Steelers needed a get-right game and what could go wrong against the Bengals? For the first 30 minutes of game time on Monday night, just about everything. Pittsburgh responded in the second half, but Cincinnati didn't wilt as most likely presumed they would. With an opportunity to clinch the AFC North, the Steelers stumbled and bumbled to their third consecutive loss. A ticket to the postseason has already been punched by Pittsburgh, but that's about all that's assured for the Steelers. Pittsburgh's phenomenal defense has clearly been ground down by the notable injuries and the pressure of guiding the team as the offense was held to less than 20 points for a fourth week in a row. Ben Roethlisberger has been carrying the offense for much of the season, but his knees have buckled under that weight and his play has seemingly become as problematic as an ailing running game. At one point, the Steelers winning the AFC North seemed like a formality and maybe it still is, but the Browns (10-4) are just a game behind. Pittsburgh has slipped from undefeated -- back when its fans were upset it was getting no respect in comparison to the darling Kansas City Chiefs -- to the AFC's No. 3 seed. A perfect start has collapsed into a free fall for Pittsburgh, which has lost twice in the last three weeks to sub-.500 teams and has an arduous remaining slate versus the Colts and Browns. If the Steelers are aiming to do anything more in the playoffs than make a cameo appearance, time to panic officially kicked off in Cincinnati on Monday night.
3) On the evening in which he became just the seventh player to pass for more than 60,000 yards, Roethlisberger's struggles took center stage more so than any accomplishments founded in the glory of his past seasons. Big Ben's first half had so little to show it was likely the worst 30-minute stanza of his decorated career, as he was a dismal 7-for-16 for 19 yards with an interception. Roethlisberger came out firing in the second half, but time ran out on a comeback -- which seems thematic for his season as of late. For the game, Roethlisberger completed 20 of 38 passes for 170 yards, a touchdown and an interception -- though there should've been more INTs as errant throws were prevalent. His 62.4 QB rating was a season-low, falling below the 65.9 in the previous week's loss to the Bills. The return of Roethlisberger this season was propelling the Steelers to the success they came short of in 2019, but his play has worsened rather than improved as the campaign has carried on. There are big problems at hand for Big Ben and the Steelers offense. They've lingered for weeks and Week 15 was the low point so far.
4) For all the Steelers' offensive tribulations, the Bengals defense played sensationally. As Cincy constructed its 17-0 halftime lead, it did so as its defense held the Steelers to just two first downs. Over the course of the game Pittsburgh had only 12 first downs and 244 total yards, while the Bengals forced three turnovers that were turned into 17 points. Carl Lawson, Vonn Bell, Josh Bynes and Darius Phillips were among the many Bengals defenders who played stellar ball, names lost in the travails of a three-win season who stood tall on Monday. The Steelers had a division to win on Monday, but the Bengals were the ones who came out looking like they had something to play for.
5) Diontae Johnson has had all kinds of problems with dropped balls, but on Monday he caught the hopes of a comeback in his grasp. Johnson was on the other end of a nice ball from Roethlisberger to open the second half with a 23-yard score. It ignited a Steelers comeback, that obviously fell short. Johnson's drops have plagued the Steelers lately, but on Monday he had eight catches for 59 yards and the score. He was hardly outstanding or anything, but on a night in which the Steelers' problems were many, Johnson wasn't one of them.
6) The loss of Burrow to a season-ending knee injury was staggering for the Bengals. However, Cincinnati's also been without its leading rusher, Joe Mixon, since Week 6. But on Monday, a running back's performance proved pivotal for the Bengals. Bernard, facing the No. 3 overall defense in the NFL, turned in the best game of his season on Monday. The dual-threat back had a season-high 83 yards on 25 carries, rushing for a touchdown and hauling one in. The veteran found few easy yards against the Steelers, but he was the motor that kept the comeback hopes running.
7) As the Steelers fall, T.J. Watt's excellent year still continued. The AP Defensive Player of the Year candidate tallied his 13th sack of the year and added four tackles, three tackles for a loss and and a QB hit. Against a normally ineffective Bengals offense, the mighty Steelers defense looked vulnerable and perhaps that's a negative for Watt, the catalyst in Pittsburgh's new-age dominant defense. But when the offense has two first-half first downs, the defense is going to eventually buckle under the pressure. Watt continues to produce, though, even as the Steelers have been idling at 11 wins for a month now.