CINCINNATI - Even after linebacker Ryan Shazier forced a fumble and cornerback Stephon Tuitt recovered it, the outlook wasn't promising.
"It was dire," head coach Mike Tomlin assessed of the situation the Steelers faced with 1:23 remaining in the fourth quarter and the ball at the Steelers' 9-yard line and the Bengals leading, 16-15, in Saturday night's AFC Wild Card Game at Paul Brown Stadium.
It became a little less so when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, out since injuring his right shoulder on the final play of the third quarter, re-entered the game.
Nine plays, 74 yards, two defensive personal-foul penalties and a 35-yard Chris Boswell field goal later, the Steelers were celebrating an improbable, 18-16 victory and looking ahead to this coming Sunday at Denver.
Roethlisberger had returned to the sideline after being carted off and getting checked out by the Steelers medical staff and attempting to throw a few passes in the locker room.
"Whether I can go or not at least me being out there will hopefully kind of get the guys going a little bit," Roethlisberger said of his return.
He watched from the sideline as backup quarterback Landry Jones threw an interception with 1:36 left in the fourth quarter.
But when the Steelers got the ball back, the long coat came off.
"(Tomlin) asked if I could throw," Roethlisberger said. "I said 'I think so.' Threw a couple balls on the sideline, said 'might as well give it a shot.'
Tomlin said he "didn't know how far" Roethlisberger would be able to throw.
But the ability to throw was enough right about then.
"Ben and I have been together nine years," Tomlin said. "We kinda looked at each other and kinda said 'now or never.'"
Roethlisberger said at least one request was beyond his capabilities at that point.
"Coach (offensive coordinator Todd Haley) called one deep one," Roethlisberger said. "I went to the sideline and said, 'Coach, you can't do that anymore. I can't throw it that far.' We had to work our way down the field."
Tight end Ben Roethlisberger appreciated what Roethlisberger was able to do and his willingness to attempt to lead a last-season, game-winning drive.
"Pretty special," Miller said. "I'm not sure of the extent of his injury but, obviously, it was bad enough that he couldn't come back in the game initially. But he was willing to sacrifice for the team.
"It was loud. He just stepped in the huddle, called the play and we got moving."
PLAY FOR 60: Jones' interception sent the defense back onto the field one offensive snap after it had surrendered a seven-play, 45-yard drive in 1:38 that had resulted in a 16-15 Cincinnati lead.
One snap later Cockrell had the ball and the Steelers had new life.
"It's really just mental toughness," free safety Mike Mitchell said of the takeaway that made the game-ending drive possible. "We knew we had given up one. We work the strip drill, usually at the start of practice every day. Shazier made a huge play.
"That's why you can never lose hope. Even when it looked bad, you can't lose hope."
Added defensive end Cam Heyward of the last-minute approach by the defense: "Keep going, keep talking (and) keep being positive. And we got a big play, Shazier ripped it and Ross recovered it and our offense did a great job of going down the field."
Game action from the Steelers' AFC Wild Card game against the Bengals.
NEXT MEN UP:** Running back Fitz Toussaint had 24 carries for 54 yards in his two NFL seasons prior to Saturday night, 18 for 42 with the Steelers this season.
He wound up with 17 carries for 58 yards and four catches for 60 yards against the Bengals.
"We said all week, and we meant it, we had a great deal of confidence in Fitz, not based on his resume but just based on what we see day to day," Tomlin said. "Regardless of his position in the group he brings his hard hat. He comes to work every day, his demeanor has never changed. We find comfort in that.
"He did what we expected him to do."
Running back Jordan Todman contributed 65 yards on 11 carries and wide receiver Martavis Bryant had 44 on his only rushing attempt.
The Steelers finished with 167 rushing yards on 29 carries for a 5.8 average per despite not having running back Le'Veon Bell (foot) available.
The 167 yards trailed only the 195 the Steelers generated on Nov. 8 against Oakland this season (they also had 167 on Oct. 1 against Baltimore).
"The backs ran really hard," guard David DeCastro said. "I think we did a pretty good job up front, too."
THEY SAID IT: "I don't really know what the key was to that game. That was not really the way we wanted that to go, but definitely thankful for the outcome." - Mitchell on beating the Bengals.
"For whatever reason it's kind of switched in these last two years. I'm not sure what changed it, their attitude towards us. We came out on top, that's all I can ask." - guard Ramon Foster on playing the Bengals.
"I don't think it will ever be finished completely. We play each other twice a year forever. I think it's always going to be tempers flaring and always going to be a great rivalry." - linebacker Vince Williams on playing the Bengals.
"Kinda surreal. At that point you're running on instinct, fumes, just trying to keep him as clean as possible." - DeCastro on Roethlisberger re-entering the game.
"He's our guy. I wouldn't trade him for anyone else." - Tomlin on Roethlisberger.