CINCINNATI – For an afternoon, it looked exactly as it's supposed to look. And the timing couldn't have been better.
The Steelers arrived here last weekend as a team very much a dichotomy. They were still in the thick of the AFC North race but had yet to win a game against a division opponent. Granted, the sampling included just the home-and-home series with the Ravens, but winless is winless and when it still applies with Thanksgiving right around the corner it deserves attention. There is no such thing as a must-win game in Week 10 of an NFL season, but this one against the Bengals was critical for the Steelers.
Lose this game, and the Steelers would have been 6-4 overall and 0-3 within the AFC North, and instead of just working to catch and bypass the Ravens, the Steelers would have been chasing both the Ravens and the Bengals. Beating the Bengals wasn't going to right all the wrongs, but it would allow the Steelers to keep pace with the Ravens, who really were the ones to beat for the division title.
As the ball was placed on the tee at Paul Brown Stadium last Sunday, that's how it figured to play out, but by the time the Steelers' charter flight from Cincinnati touched down in Pittsburgh, things were decidedly different. In a good way.
The Steelers had done what they could by defeating the Bengals, 24-17, and then Seahawks shocked the Ravens, 22-17, by milking the game's final six minutes with an offense that ground out four first downs against the vaunted Baltimore defense. And so instead of any version of a doomsday scenario, the Steelers were alone atop the AFC North and heading into their bye week, while the Ravens were in the middle of a long, miserable flight back from Seattle and staring down the barrel at their first of two against the Bengals.
Granted, none of this made up for losing to the Ravens on Nov. 6, but it certainly helped mitigate the damage. And speaking of that Steelers' loss to the Ravens, this win over the Bengals indicated they had learned from some of the mistakes they made that night.
In the loss to the Ravens, the Steelers had a chance to close out the game on offense with just one more first down, but they could not. Then they had a chance to ice the outcome with either a takeaway or a stop on defense, but they could not.
In beating the Bengals, they did both.
This was what it's supposed to look like, though it still was flawed. But, some early efficiency by the offense – in the case of the Bengals that came in the form of touchdown drives on each of the first two possessions – puts the opponent in a hole and helps your defense. You hold the lead by being efficient in the red zone and then finish with a defining defensive play and/or a clock-killing possession by the offense.
Granted, easier said than done, but the win over the Bengals showed them that they can do it, and that they can do it against a quality opponent on the road. Add that to the Seahawks beating the Ravens, and the Steelers had themselves quite the successful weekend.
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