Marvin Lewis keeps preaching to his Bengals that football is a 60-minute game. But Sunday's stunning, 28-20 victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field came down to two plays taking a total of 10 seconds.
The Bengals appeared destined for defeat. Their offense was on life support. Carson Palmer couldn't escape sacks. The running game blew away in the gusting, 22-mile-an-hour winds swirling around the Ohio River. After Palmer's sixth sack from a relentless Blitzburg rush, the Bengals, trailing 17-14 with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, found life when Steelers returner Ricardo Colclough couldn't judge a punt in the wind and the Bengals' Tony Stewart recovered the ball at the Steelers' 9-yard line.
Palmer took three seconds to draw Steelers safety Troy Polamalu to the line of scrimmage on a play-action pass and hit T.J. Houshmandzadeh with an easy 9-yard touchdown pass.
Two plays later, Steelers halfback Verron Haynes fumbled and linebacker Brian Simmons recovered at the Steelers' 30. The next touchdown took seven seconds. Palmer lobbed a pass to Houshmandzadeh at the goal line. It wasn't Palmer's best pass, but Houshmandzadeh managed to make a spectacular, juggling catch. The touchdown gave the Bengals a 28-17 lead with 7:05 left.
Two plays. Two touchdowns. The plays took a total of 10 seconds. The elapsed time ate up only 54 seconds -- 54 seconds that will burned in the Bengals' memory for years. That's twice in two years the Bengals came into Heinz Field and escaped with a victory. Last year, it enabled them to win the AFC North.
Sunday's win gives the Bengals a 3-0 record and a two-game lead over the Steelers. But so much more went into this game than just 10 seconds of Bengals explosiveness. The Bengals grew up Sunday, and they admit they learned a valuable lesson from the Steelers last year in the playoffs.
The emotional, volatile Bengals matured into a team with patience Sunday. They looked and acted like a playoff team.
"The Steelers showed us, as a football team, how you do it," Marvin Lewis said of the Steelers' playoff victory in Cincinnati last January. "When your backs are against the wall, you go play football. You don't talk about it, you go play. That's what they did. They were a great example for us."
Right tackle Willie Anderson has been a Bengal 11 years. He's seen a lot of bad football, but he's watching a champion finally starting to emerge. He knows and Marvin Lewis knows the Bengals are volatile. Once Palmer blew out his knee in the first possession of the Steelers' playoff win, the Bengals lost composure and watched the Steelers grab the lead. Looking back, Anderson knew the problem.
"Last year, the playoff game may have gotten too big for us," Anderson said. "You have to learn not to make a game bigger than it is. Six or seven years ago if we would have fallen behind 17-14 like we did today, we probably would have given up. Before Marvin got here, we didn't have the mental toughness to handle these type of games."
Winning teams learn to handle adversity. Look at the Steelers. After they lost to the Bengals last season, they had to win their last four to make the playoffs. Veteran leadership prevailed, and the Steelers gutted out three playoff road wins, then won the Super Bowl despite being dominated by the Seahawks in the first half.