CINCINNATI – Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t throw. Antonio Brown couldn’t stand without help.
And in the end, it didn’t matter. The Pittsburgh Steelers are heading to Denver after the Cincinnati Bengals did what they always seem to do this time of year: they imploded.
Chris Boswell kicked a 35-yard field goal with 14 seconds remaining as Pittsburgh somehow pulled out an 18-16 victory in a — really, just pick whatever synonym for “ugly” that works — AFC wild-card game Saturday night.
Pittsburgh (11-6) moved into field goal position thanks to consecutive 15-yard penalties on the Bengals, one on linebacker Vontaze Burfict and another on cornerback Adam Jones. Burfict dropped his shoulder and hit a defenseless Brown in the helmet as the All-Pro receiver came across the middle, and Jones lost his cool after getting into it with Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter when Porter came onto the field as Brown was being tended to by trainers.
Boswell drilled his fourth field goal of the game on the next snap to give the Steelers their first playoff victory since the 2010 AFC championship.
“We won the game, that’s all that matters,” Roethlisberger said.
Pittsburgh bolted off the field without so much as shaking hands while the Bengals vented their frustration after easily the most painful of their eighth straight postseason losses.
Cincinnati might want to do the same after somehow losing despite rallying from a 15-point deficit to have the lead and the ball in Pittsburgh territory with 1:30 to go.
Then the Bengals turned into . . . the Bengals.
Hill was stripped of the ball by Ryan Shazier while trying to run out the clock. The Steelers recovered at the Pittsburgh 9 and Roethlisberger and his aching right shoulder returned for a last-gasp drive. Unable to pass with any real authority, he still managed to get the Steelers near midfield with 22 seconds to go when he threw high to Brown in Cincinnati territory.
“It’s hard to put into words,” said Hill. “Words don’t do anything at this point. It’s on me. I take full blame for it.”
He had plenty of help from two of his volatile teammates, both with a history of questionable decision-making.
Burfict, whose sack of Roethlisberger sent the quarterback to the locker room, lowered his shoulder as Brown landed. The volatile linebacker earned a personal foul. Jones compounded the problem when he lost his cool while jawing with Porter, easily putting Boswell within field goal range after Cincinnati’s eighth — and final — flag of a ghastly night that ended with an unthinkable collapse.
“We destructed on ourselves,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.
Roethlisberger finished 18 of 31 for 229 yards and a touchdown in rainy conditions. Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint combined for 123 yards rushing filling in for injured DeAngelo Williams. Brown caught seven passes for 119 yards but was also diagnosed with a concussion.
Still, that production didn’t look like it would be enough. AJ McCarron put together an improbable comeback after Martavis Bryant’s somersaulting touchdown grab gave the Steelers a 15-0 lead heading into the final quarter.
Cincinnati (12-5) ripped off 16 straight points, the last six on a 25-yard strike from McCarron to A.J. Green that put the Bengals in front. They missed the 2-point conversion but had seized momentum completely, something that seemed near impossible after running back Gio Bernard was knocked unconscious by Shazier and fumbled late in the third quarter, a hit that seemed to ratchet up a game that was already contentious all the way to the edge … and maybe beyond.