CINCINNATI – Because a chunk of the story of the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers is their resiliency, and because it's always said that teams must pick up their game for the playoffs, well, in light of all that, what happened yesterday at Paul Brown Stadium was fitting.
In the effort to explain how Steelers 18, Bengals 16 came to be and why it ended up with Pittsburgh advancing through the first stage of these playoffs, there can be a good bit of blame ladled on the Bengals for losing their poise, and then there's always some cause to rip the officiating. Either of those arguments can be made convincingly, but the fact the Steelers even were able to be close enough at the end for the Bengals to blow it or the officials to steal it – depending on the particular point of view – is just remarkable.
In a game they either had to find a way to win or else they would be packing up their equipment until the start of OTAs next Memorial Day, the Steelers were playing with some combination of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman at running back instead of the planned-upon combination of Le'Veon Bell and Le'Veon Bell; they were playing with Landry Jones at quarterback instead of Ben Roethlisberger, with Cody Wallace instead of Maurkice Pouncey, and with Alejandro Villanueva instead of Kelvin Beachum. Such a task is daunting to the point of being paralyzing – ask the Dallas Cowboys – but since these Steelers have been navigating these waters ever since the first of those five preseason games last summer when their veteran kicker popped an ACL on a high school field in Canton, Ohio, it was something that didn't break them yesterday.
Todman and Toussaint combined for 28 carries and 123 yards, and after adding Toussaint's four catches he finished with 118 yards from scrimmage on the night, but those two also handled the nuances of their position well enough to make sure it wasn't going to be the absence of Bell and Williams that ended the Steelers' season. Cody Wallace and Alejandro Villanueva over time have dulled the sting of being without Pouncey and Beachum, but you knew that already.
What was new last week was having Martavis Bryant's toughness questioned by the starting quarterback in two separate sessions with the media, and then to have Bryant respond with his team's only touchdown on a catch more difficult than a combination of all of the ones he had dropped over the previous few weeks to draw the quarterback's attention in the first place.
And then there was Ben. During the regular season, Roethlisberger has been knocked out of a game by a sprained knee and then in another by a sprained foot, and so when he was driven to the locker room on a cart after having his throwing shoulder slammed to the turf by Vontaze Burfict on the final play of the third quarter it looked as though Landry Jones would be taking the Steelers' final offensive snaps of this season.
Jones wasn't very successful this time around, and his time under center in this game coincided with the Steelers turning a 15-0 lead into a 16-15 deficit. When Jones was intercepted by Burfict at the Pittsburgh 26-yard line with 96 seconds left, it seemed like the logical time to give up on the season.
All that would save them was a takeaway, which is exactly what they created on the very next snap. Jeremy Hill blasted up the middle for 6 yards where he encountered Ryan Shazier and Ryan Shazier, with Shazier able to strip the ball loose for Stephon Tuitt to recover to set up the Steelers offense at the 9-yard line. OK, the Steelers had the ball, but they were about 58 yards away from being able to attempt a 50-yard field goal, and now there were only 83 seconds remaining even though they still did have their three timeouts.
But instead of Landry, it was Ben who doffed the coat and joined the offense in the huddle. Roethlisberger's shoulder wasn't going to allow him to attack the Bengals deep down the field, but he was accurate enough to complete 5-of-7 for 40 yards – including a 12-yard pitch-and-catch to Antonio Brown to convert a fourth-and-3 – and the Steelers were fortunate enough to have the Bengals choose an incomplete pass with 18 seconds left to show their true stripes.
Game action from the Steelers' AFC Wild Card game against the Bengals.
It was then that Burfict and Adam Jones managed to draw 30 yards in penalties while the clock was stopped, and in the eyes of the Steelers fans following this drama the villains had gotten their comeuppance. Chris Boswell only had to attempt a 35-yard field goal on the next snap, and when he made it those three points are how the scoreboard got to: Steelers 18, Bengals 16.
From the perspective of the losing team, blame can be assigned and luck can be cursed, and there indeed were mistakes made by the Bengals and bounces of the ball that went against them. But in an athletic competition, those aren't mistakes and it's not bad luck unless the opponent has done the things necessary to put itself in the position to take advantage.
The ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions and put oneself in position to take advantage of circumstances is the definition of resilient. It's how the Steelers got themselves into these playoffs, and yesterday it was how they got themselves into the Divisional Round.