Fans were watching the scoreboard on Sunday at Heinz Field, as fixated on the game between the Browns and Ravens in Baltimore as they were on the Pittsburgh Steelers-Cincinnati Bengals game before them.
The Steelers came into this season finale knowing their chances of qualifying for the playoffs required some help. Not only did they need to beat the Bengals but also have the Browns beat or tie the Ravens. Now, the chances of clinching a wild-card berth require the Colts and Titans to tie Sunday night.
So, the out-of-town scoreboard brought cheers in the first quarter when the Browns scored a touchdown – even though there was little to celebrate about the Steelers, who got off to an uninspired start against an AFC North rival that had lost eight of its last 10 games.
But it wasn’t the Steelers game that had the crowd captivated.
1. Fourth-and-nothing: A week after a failed fake punt on fourth-and-5 in the fourth quarter at New Orleans, the Steelers looked like they were going to go for it with Ben Roethlisberger on their first possession.
On fourth-and-1 at the Cincinnati 45, Roethlisberger waved the punt unit off the field and lined up under center. After trying to draw the Bengals offsides with a hard count, the Steelers instead drew a delay of game penalty and were forced to punt.
That had Steelers fans howling.
To make matters worse, Jordan Berry’s punt from midfield went 40 yards but long snapper Kam Canaday drew a holding penalty to give the Bengals the ball at the 20.
It was an ominous start for the Steelers.
2. Pick Seven: The Bengals showed no signs of effectiveness on offense on their first two possessions, following a three-and-out by blowing up just as they were about to cross midfield.
Without Antonio Brown, who was inactive because of a knee injury, Steelers MVP JuJu Smith-Schuster became the focal point for the Bengals defense.
As a result, the Steelers leaned on runs and short passes to running backs Jaylen Samuels, who ran for 4 yards on a third-and-1, and James Conner, who followed that with another 4-yarder.
On second-and-6 at the Steelers’ 45, strong safety Shawn Williams read Roethlisberger’s eyes and stepped in front of a pass intended for Smith-Schuster over the middle.
Williams returned the interception 58 yards for a touchdown to give the Bengals a 7-0 lead at 12:37 of the second quarter, putting Cincinnati on the scoreboard first.
3. Trading kicks: That gave life to the Bengals’ offense, as Jeff Driskel completed 4 of 5 passes for 51 yards on a 12-play drive from the Cincinnati 18 to the Steelers 30.
The Steelers got a break when T.J. Watt hit Driskel to force a fumble. Even though the Bengals recovered, right guard Alex Redmond drew a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. But Driskel connected with Alex Erickson for a 13-yard gain to set up a Randy Bullock 49-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead.
The Steelers answered, thanks to a 16-yard pass to tight end Xavier Grimble on fourth-and-1 at the Cincinnati 46.
With four seconds left in the half, Matt McCrane trotted out for a field goal. McCrane was signed Thursday to replace Chris Boswell, who was placed on injured reserve, and had made 5 of 9 field goals this season for Arizona and Oakland.
McCrane’s 39-yarder put the Steelers on the scoreboard as the first half expired, even if they were trailing the Bengals, 10-3.
4. Easy as 1-2-3: The turning point for the Steelers came at 5:15 of the third quarter, when Roethlisberger lofted a pass deep along the right sideline to rookie receiver James Washington for 52 yards.
Conner followed with a 16-yard run to the Cincinnati 11, and Roethlisberger hit Smith-Schuster for a touchdown on the next play. The Steelers were in position to tie, even they could convert.
A bad snap didn’t help matters, but McCrane hit a knuckleball that made it through the uprights to tie it at 10-10 with 3:50 left in the third quarter.
Heinz Field came back to life. The Browns, meantime, had rallied to cut the Ravens’ lead to 20-14.
The playoffs remained a possibility.
5. Down to the wire: For the seventh straight game, the outcome wouldn’t be decided until the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
The Steelers converted a fourth-and-4 when Roethlisberger threw a pass to Samuels in the right flat for a 6-yard gain, but a pair of penalties by center Maurkice Pouncey forced a field-goal attempt.
McCrane’s 47-yarder from the left hash just barely made it over the crossbar, ricocheting off the right upright and in, but the Steelers finally had their first lead, 13-10, with 8:36 remaining.
But the Bengals answered with a 51-yard run by Joe Mixon to the Steelers’ 15, and had a third-and-2 at the 7 before Cameron Heyward sacked Driskel for a 7-yard loss.
Bullock nailed a 32-yard field goal to tie it, 13-13, with 6:17 left.
This is a good time to remind you that McCrane was on the golf course during a family vacation when he received a phone call on Thursday that the Steelers wanted to sign him.
Fortunately, he was on the 18th green.
Consider: The Steelers were 3-of-12 on third downs before Conner converted a third-and-1 with a 2-yard run. They converted a third-and-10 on a pass to Eli Rogers, who spun off a defender for the first down, before coming up short on a third-and-5 at the 19 when Roethlisberger passed to a fallen Switzer on the visiting sideline.
But McCrane saved the day in a way Boswell hadn’t in overtime tie at Cleveland and in the last second loss at Oakland, drilling a 35-yarder for a 16-13 lead.
After the Steelers stopped the Bengals to clinch the victory, the fans were chanting something we’ve never heard before at Heinz Field: Let’s Go Browns!
That was followed by an even more surprising scene. Heinz Field showed the Browns-Ravens game on the Jumbotron, turning the stadium into a watch party. Steelers players stayed on the field to watch the finish, cheering on Cleveland.
But their hearts sank when the Ravens held on for a 26-24 victory, all but officinally eliminating the Steelers from the playoffs.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.