STEELERS 27, BENGALS 17**
Steelers' record: 11-5
One year ago: 8-8
Series record (including playoffs): Steelers lead, 56-34
WHAT HAPPENED IN ROUND 1
Which is the more accurate portrayal of the first meeting between these teams this season: a game where the Steelers couldn't deal with Bengals WR A.J. Green, whose 224 yards receiving and 81-yard touchdown catch had Cincinnati holding a 21-17 lead after three quarters, or a game where the Bengals couldn't contain Le'Veon Bell, who rushed for 185 yards, totaled 235 from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns?
The answer you get probably depends upon the ZIP code of the respondent, but Coach Mike Tomlin looked at one particular factor as the most significant in the 42-21 outcome.
"We won the line of scrimmage," said Tomlin. "In the last game, I told the guys at halftime that based on what I saw in the first half the team establishing the run with its feature back first was probably going to be the team controlling the second half and win the game. We were able to do that with Le'Veon and the guys up front, and hopefully we can do similar things this time."
STORYLINE FOR ROUND 2
Over the course of this season, the Steelers defense has developed into a unit that is reliable if not dominant. One of the areas in which the improvement has been considerable has been their defense against the run. After getting shredded for 191 yards by the Browns in the opener and for 157 the following Thursday in Baltimore and then for 158 by the Browns in the rematch on Oct. 12, the Steelers haven't allowed a team to crack the 100-yard barrier in six-of-the-last eight games, including three in a row entering Round 2 vs. the Bengals.
In the first meeting between these teams, the Bengals finished with 86 yards rushing, 46 on eight attempts coming from rookie Jeremy Hill.
"Just before we played them the first time, I had thought Jeremy Hill had ascended and all that needed to be done was for them to make an announcement," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "They did that after our game. No disrespect to Giovani Bernard, a talented guy they use in a lot of ways, but I really thought they had a different mind-set and approach when Hill was in there."
What Tomlin thought he saw turned out to be true. Hill, 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, has rushed for 295 yards and three touchdowns with a 6.3 average over the previous two games.
"We can't allow Jeremy Hill to wear away at us, not only in terms of his ability to wear us down over the course of the game but also in his ability get them in third-and-manageable positions because he's able to run the ball effectively," said Tomlin. "We have to minimize both aspects of that."
In the rematch, Hill finished with 100 yards on 23 carries to give him three straight over the century mark, but because the Bengals had to play much of the game from behind they never were able to feed him the ball in a way that allowed them to take over the game. And the reason for that was the turnover issue.
The turnover issue is one the Steelers know they have to guard against in every game. During the three-game winning streak they brought into this finale, the Steelers did not turn it over, and the protect-the-football speech is part of Tomlin's message every week to the team.
The Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2014 regular season finale at Heinz Field.
"When you talk about Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, we have to protect our quarterback. When you talk about their savvy veteran secondary, we have to protect the ball," said Tomlin. "Those are things we've done here in December, we've taken care of our quarterback and we've taken care of the ball. That's been a winning formula for us."
On Sunday night at Heinz Field, Ben Roethlisberger threw one interception and lost one fumble, but those turnovers were mitigated by the Steelers' three takeaways, which came on two interceptions by Brice McCain and a forced fumble and recovery by Antwon Blake.
That made the Steelers plus-1 in turnover ratio for the game, and that has become a defining statistic for this team. Since falling to 3-3 with that loss in Cleveland, the Steelers have had two games where they finished with a minus turnover ratio – at the New York Jets and vs. New Orleans – and both were losses. They also had eight games in which they were even or a plus in turnover ratio, and all of those were wins.
Antonio Brown scored the touchdowns, and Brice McCain made the interceptions, but it was a play by Antwon Blake in the fourth quarter that turned the tide for the final time. With the Steelers clinging to a 20-17 lead with four minutes left in the game, Andy Dalton completed a 17-yard pass to A.J. Green to move the Bengals to the Pittsburgh 31-yard line, but Blake came from behind Green to strip the ball loose and recover it at the 30-yard line. Four plays later, Antonio Brown's 63-yard catch-and-run accounted for the touchdown that iced the outcome.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT I
Antonio Brown's punt return for a touchdown was the third of his career, and it tied him with Louis Lipps and Ray Mathews for second on the franchise's all-time list. The franchise leader with four is Antwaan Randle El.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT II
With his first 28 yards receiving, Heath Miller moved into third place on the franchise's all-time list. Miller passed Louis Lipps.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT III
Martavis Bryant's first-half touchdown gave him eight this season, which is the second-most for a rookie in Steelers history. Louis Lipps had nine touchdowns as a rookie in 1984.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT IV
With 317 yards passing, Ben Roethlisberger finished in a tie with Drew Brees for the NFL lead with 4,952 yards.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT V
This division championship was the 21st in Steelers history, which is the most of an AFC team. They won the AFC Central Division 15 times and now have won the AFC North six times.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT VI
Antonio Brown's receiving touchdown was his 13th of the season, which set a franchise record. Coming into the game, Brown's 12 had him tied with Hines Ward (2002), Louis Lipps (1985), and Buddy Dial (1961).