CINCINNATI – Their business is one where nothing means more the final score, but for long stretches last night that just didn't seem to matter. The final score from Paul Brown Stadium was going to identify one of the teams as the winner and the other as the loser, and the Steelers needed the victory to get them one step closer to winning the AFC North Division and at the same time keep them even with the New England Patriots for home-field advantage in the postseason.
It was important for the Steelers to defeat the Bengals here on Monday night because doing that would put them in a position where a win over the Ravens would clinch them another AFC North Division title. And it's important to win a division title because that's the first step toward making a run in the playoffs. And it's important to have a good won-loss record in winning a division title because that's how a team can earn a bye in the first round of the playoffs. And it's important for them to keep winning to give themselves their best chance to capitalize on that upcoming date with the Patriots.
All of that was very important, and then suddenly it wasn't.
With 11:26 remaining in the first quarter of a still scoreless game, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton dumped the ball over the middle to wide receiver Josh Malone. Ryan Shazier came up quickly and made the tackle, only this time the play was not routine. Shazier drove his shoulder into the receiver, and as soon as he hit the turf he reached around and grabbed at his own back. As he laid prone on the ground, his arms were moving but his legs were not.
It soon became apparent that this was a potentially grave situation, because as medical personnel rushed onto the field to attend to Shazier and players from both teams went to their knees in prayer, his legs never moved. Not at all. When they brought out the cart and the back-board, his legs never moved. As Shazier took a ride off the field no one ever wants to see anyone have to take to be loaded into an ambulance and transported to a trauma center at an area hospital, the final score of a game and the ramifications of that final score could not have seemed more insignificant.
Between then and the final 30 seconds of the first half the Steelers played like a group that had a vision of a teammate fighting for his quality of life stuck in their heads as they saw their deficit grow to 17-0, but in those final 30 seconds Le'Veon Bell took a dump-off pass and turned it into a 33-yard gain and then the Bengals committed one of their 13 penalties – a 38-yard pass interference by Dre Kirkpatrick – and Chris Boswell's 30-yard field goal made it 17-3 at halftime.
Then behind the closed doors of their locker room during the 12-minute halftime, the Steelers gathered themselves. Mike Tomlin pulled Coty Sensabaugh, who seemed to be wearing a target that Andy Dalton exploited with seven completions to A.J. Green for 77 yards and two touchdowns in that first half, and replaced him with rookie Cam Sutton. That was the only personnel move, but there wasn't much else to do, what with Joe Haden and Mike Mitchell both inactive and Shazier in the hospital.
On the first play of the second half, Dalton again went to Green, but Sutton broke up the pass, and maybe that set a tone. The Bengals went three-and-out on that possession, and following the punt the Steelers went 78 yards in nine plays, and after Bell turned another dump-off completion into a 35-yard touchdown, it was a ballgame, 17-10.
"I can't say enough about the mental toughness of that group that's in the locker room," said Tomlin during his postgame press briefing. "We faced a lot of adversity tonight, a lot of it created by us turning the ball over early and a lot of it created by Cincinnati. They came to play, and they got after us in the first half of the game. They dominated and won possession downs on both sides. They converted third downs with their offense, and we weren't able to get off the field. It was difficult for us to win third downs on our side. You also probably have to acknowledge that it was difficult for those men to stay focused and play with their brother laid flat. That's an element of ball as well. Thankfully, the guys stayed on task, and we were able to do the things necessary in the second half to have us march back, and that (deserves) credit."
The Steelers played without Haden and Mitchell. Shazier was injured in the first few minutes. They also lost Shazier's replacement, Tyler Matakevich, to a shoulder injury, which meant they were down to their last healthy inside linebacker in L.J. Fort. Antonio Brown was less than 100 percent with a toe injury. A holding penalty wiped out a 96-yard kickoff return by Martavis Bryant.
"We have a no-blink group," said Tomlin. "We've been under duress in that stadium against that team before. Maybe that past experience helps us in some way, but largely it's the men and the belief in each other — belief in our approach — and making the necessary plays to make that belief reality."
Game action photos from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 13 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Maybe it was some combination of belief and wanting to win for a fallen teammate, and it was Bell and Brown and Martavis Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger making plays for the offense, and the defense got second half sacks from Vince Williams and Bud Dupree in allowing the Bengals only three more points and 100 yards of offense over the final two quarters. The Steelers did pull out the victory with a second straight game-ending field goal from Chris Boswell, and then they got some very good news.
Shazier's condition was improving, and he would not need surgery. As the Steelers left here with a seventh straight win and a 10-2 record and their seeding atop the AFC intact, that was what really mattered to them.