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.
By all rights, the Bengals should have lost Sunday. The Steelers ran 80 plays to the Bengals' 57. The Steelers controlled the ball for 33:51 seconds to 26:09. Willie Parker rushed for 133 yards on 31 carries for the Steelers. Palmer was sacked six times, had three fumbles and was responsible for three turnovers.
"It shows how good your team is when you are playing against a good team and your quarterback doesn't play very well and you still get a win," said Palmer, who threw for only 193 yards.
Palmer didn't panic. He took his shots when he could. Every time he dropped back, he noticed his favorite target, Chad Johnson, was covered. Johnson ended up with only one catch for 11 yards. Instead, Palmer got the ball to Chris Henry and Houshmandzadeh. Twice, Henry was matched up in one-on-one coverage inside the red zone. Henry is 6-foot-4, 200 pounds and runs a 4.4. He beat Deshea Townsend and Ike Taylor for touchdowns in the red zone on what turned out to be a four-touchdown day for Palmer.
"I don't know if you're ever going to control them," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said of the Bengals. "We were trying to contain them. It's a good offense. You start the game and feel good about it, then they put together two good drives at the end of the first half. Defensively, in the second half, we did a very good job outside of the two plays they hit after the turnovers."
While the Bengals rallied in the face of adversity, the Steelers made major blunders when things were working in their favor. For example:
The Steelers dominated the first quarter, jumping to a 7-0 lead and marching to the Bengals' 6 until Ben Roethlisberger threw an ill-advised pick in the end zone. Palmer and the Bengals then marched 97 yards to tie the game.
On the next series, Roethlisberger drove to Cincinnati's 23 but took a sack and watched from the sidelines as Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton blocked a field goal.
Even when Parker scored a 1-yard touchdown to take a 17-14 lead in the third quarter, the Steelers were flagged 15 yards for celebrating too much. Parker jumped in the air and did a crossed elbow celebration with Haynes. That dumb move gave the Bengals field position for their next series.
Roethlisberger threw three interceptions, even though the Steelers had the lead most of the game.
"I put pressure on myself to produce and right now, I'm not doing that," said Roethlisberger, who completed 18 of 39 but had a 30.7 quarterback rating because of three sacks and three fumbles. "I'm going to continue to put more pressure on myself to play better. I need to find that happy medium without trying to do too much. I have to come out smart and make better plays."
Palmer has found that happy medium. He called his game ugly, but he still threw for four touchdowns. Even more important, he showed great leadership.
After the Bengals took the lead in the fourth quarter, Johnson and Houshmandzadeh started trash talking with the Steelers' defense. Palmer yelled, "Shut up and play football."
"Part of the Steelers mystique is to be an intimidating team and they are a talking team," Palmer said. "At the end of the game, we got caught talking and playing into their game instead of just playing football. My message was just shut up and play. You don't need to talk. You don't need to tell them how good we are playing or that we are up or we have more points on the board. Just play and we ended up finishing the game and getting the win. I think we are a classy team."
Even Johnson, the king of trash talking, was subdued after the game. He didn't go crazy about catching only one pass. He needed an IV at halftime because he was dehydrated. His body was banged up from last week's game, but his presence drew single coverage for Houshmandzadeh and Henry that resulted in four touchdown passes.
A year ago, Johnson broke into tears when he caught five passes for 52 yards against the Jaguars during a Sunday night game. He let this one-catch day pass, knowing the Bengals had beaten the Steelers and had a two-game lead in the division.
"The personality of the guys on this team are confident," Houshmandzadeh said. "We are borderline cocky, but you can be cocky when you are confident in what you can do as a team."
The Bengals grew as a team Sunday because they didn't panic and didn't get too cocky. The Steelers might have controlled most of the game, but the Bengals made the big plays to win.