PITTSBURGH — A.J. Green doesn’t really care about the Cincinnati Bengals’ woeful past. The former Georgia wide receiver wasn’t part of it and hasn’t really taken the time to study it.
The Bengals were bad. End of story.
And now they’re good. Beginning of story.
Andy Dalton hit Green for a 21-yard pass in the final minutes to set up Josh Brown’s 43-yard field goal with 4 seconds left to lift the Bengals to a 13-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
Cincinnati (9-6) clinched a second consecutive playoff berth after beating the Steelers (7-8) for the first time since 2009.
Pittsburgh (7-8) was eliminated from postseason contention.
The only other time the Bengals made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons came in 1981-82, six years before Green was born.
“This has been our goal coming in at the beginning of the season,” Green said. “A lot of people talked about we hadn’t been in in back to back seasons in 30 years. I don’t worry about that stuff. I’ve been here two years and we made the playoffs all two years. That’s all we can control.”
Cincinnati is in uncharted territory.
The Bengals have been around since 1968, but this is the first time they’ll make the postseason in two consecutive non-strike years.
“I know they just think that there’s some complex; there’s no complex, you’ve just got to come play and win,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “This group in there has very little history of anything.”
Maybe that’s why Bengals aren’t doomed to repeat it.
Brown missed a 56-yarder earlier in the fourth quarter, but earned a second chance when Reggie Nelson picked off Ben Roethlisberger and returned it to the Pittsburgh 46 with 14 seconds remaining. Dalton found Green down the right sideline on the next play, setting up Brown’s winner.
“I’ve had some pretty big kicks, but that was a long time ago,” said Brown, who is filling in for injured starter Mike Nugent. “When you have a chance for the playoffs there’s nothing bigger. It’s a big deal.
Dalton completed 24 of 41 for 278 yards and two interceptions for the Bengals, which snapped a five-game losing streak to Pittsburgh. Green caught 10 passes for 116 yards and Cincinnati’s defense next let the Steelers get comfortable.
Roethlisberger completed 14 of 28 passes for 220 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Leon Hall returned the first pick 17 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter and Nelson stepped in front of an overthrown Roethlisberger pass in the fourth.
The Steelers needed to win their final two games to make the playoffs. Instead, the team that was 6-3 in early November will spend January at home after falling for the fifth time in its last six games.
“We should be (in the playoffs) if it wasn’t for me,” Roethlisberger said after throwing his second game-deciding interception in eight days.
Roethlisberger tossed a pick — also intended for Wallace — on the second play of overtime in Dallas last Sunday, allowing the Cowboys to win it on a field goal. He openly questioned offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s play calling after the loss, but apologized later and insisted he and Haley were “on the same page.”
Maybe, but the Steelers hardly played like it. The Bengals sacked Roethlisberger four times and allowed Pittsburgh to complete just 2 of 14 third downs.
“Not our day and thus, not our year,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “Just not enough significant plays at the moments. Sounds like a broken record but reality as we sit here.”
Pittsburgh did a decent job of keeping Dalton and Green in check, posting season highs with three turnovers and six sacks. The Bengals couldn’t run the ball at all, managing just 14 yards against the NFL’s top defense. Still, it wasn’t enough for the Steelers, turning a season that looked so promising before Election Day into a muddled mess.
Instead of making playoff plans, Pittsburgh needs a victory next week against Cleveland to avoid the first losing season in Tomlin’s six-year tenure.
Normally it’s the Bengals who are playing out the string. Yet the franchise that served as a punchline for so long is now the one throwing the punches. Cincinnati never trailed in a place it rarely wins and allowed the Steelers to make the critical mistakes.
Well, most of them anyway.
Cincinnati drove into Pittsburgh territory midway through the fourth quarter with the score tied at 10 before things bogged down at the Steelers 38. Rather than try to pin reeling Pittsburgh deep, Lewis sent out Brown to attempt a 56-yard field goal into the tricky Heinz Field winds.
The kick was never close, giving the Steelers premium field position with 3:18 left.
“I make decisions to try to win the game today and they kind of backfired on me a little bit,” Lewis said.
Pittsburgh, however, had its own kicking issues. The Steelers moved to the Cincinnati 36, then brought out Shaun Suisham for a 53-yard attempt that was short all the way.
The Bengals went nowhere, giving Pittsburgh one last shot in regulation. Rather than run out the clock and play for overtime with the ball at their own 11 and 44 seconds to go, the Steelers tried to make something happen.
And they did. For the Bengals. Facing second down at the Pittsburgh 29, Roethlisberger rolled to his right and tried to hit Wallace down the sideline. The ball sailed over Wallace’s head and into Nelson’s arms.
Two plays later Cincinnati was celebrating a playoff berth that signaled another step out of its mediocre past.