STEELERS 24, BENGALS 20Steelers' record: 9-5One year ago: 9-5Series record (including playoffs): Steelers lead, 59-35
Since the last time these teams met – Sept. 18 at Heinz Field – the Bengals offense would be without Gio Bernard and A.J. Green, two significant weapons who always give the Steelers fits. Back in that September game, Bernard had accounted for 117 yards from scrimmage (17 rushing and 100 receiving) and his team's only touchdown. In 11 career regular season games against the Steelers, Green has 71 catches for 975 yards (13.7 average) and six touchdowns. In the Wild Card Round game last season, Green caught five passes for 71 yards and a touchdown.
There also was the Vontaze Burfict angle. In that Wild Card Round game last season, the Bengals' come-from-ahead loss was fueled by the penalty yardage born of Burfict concussing Antonio Brown with a blow to the head after an incomplete pass, and then it was doubled when Pacman Jones lost his poise in the aftermath. Burfict was suspended for the first three games of this season as punishment for his recurring violations of the player-safety initiative, and since that period included the first of 2016's version of this annual home-and-home this would be Burfict's first chance at the Steelers since last year's playoffs, and vice versa.
And then for the Steelers, their magic number was down to 2. Win the next two – today vs. the Bengals and then on Christmas Day vs. the Ravens at Heinz Field – and they would clinch the AFC North Division and the home game in the first round of the playoffs accompanying that.
Game action from Week 15 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
HOW THE STORYLINE PLAYED OUT**
The magic number was lowered to one based on the outcome of the game, but it wasn't pretty in any way. The Bengals compensated to some degree for the loss of third-down specialist Gio Bernard with Rex Burkhead, and Brandon LaFell did his best to fill in for A.J. Green by leading the team with seven catches for 91 yards (13.0 average).
For the most part, the Steelers stayed above the extracurriculars for which the Bengals are famous, but they still were penalized seven times for 104 yards, while the Bengals were flagged eight times for 86 yards. The Bengals' penalties came at some inopportune times, especially late in the game. On the Steelers' lone touchdown drive, which came early in the fourth quarter, the Bengals were penalized on four straight plays, and then the outcome was clinched when Dre Kirkpatrick committed pass interference with 1:44 left, which allowed the Steelers to go into victory formation for the final three snaps of the game.
FIRST HALF STAT THAT STANDS OUT
The Steelers were penalized four times for 74 yards in the first half, and two of those had a direct impact on the scoreboard. Artie Burns was flagged for pass interference in the end zone, which put the ball at the 1-yard line and led to the first Bengals touchdown; and Le'Veon Bell was flagged for a chop-block, and that nullified a 13-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown. Without those two penalties, it's possible the Steelers and Bengals would have ended the first half in a 13-13 tie, but as it was the Bengals held a 20-9 lead.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT I**
The victory was the Steelers' fifth in a row, and it tied the team's longest winning streak under Coach Mike Tomlin. In both the 2008 and 2009 seasons, the Steelers also won five games in a row.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT II
The statistics can lie sometimes, and so it is with some of the offensive numbers posted by the Steelers. They recorded more first downs than the Bengals, 26-19; finished with more total net yards, 382-222; and enjoyed an edge in time of possession of over five minutes, 32:32-27:28. All of those, when taken together and combined with the fact the Steelers had no turnovers, should have indicated an outcome that was more definitive than 24-20. But those were negated by a 1-for-5 performance in the red zone, including an 0-for-1 in goal-to-go situations. Plus the penalties.