PITTSBURGH -- The Cincinnati Bengals delivered a defining moment in franchise history Sunday when they clinched their second consecutive playoff berth on the soil of their fiercest division rival.
"It's a big win for the city of Cincinnati," coach Marvin Lewis said after the Bengals' last-minute, 13-10 triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I know they think that there's some complex. There's no complex. This group in there has very little history of anything."
These young Bengals are making their own history, and it's being written by a dominating group on one side of the ball. This defense is relentless and opportunistic. Hitting quarterbacks and forcing turnovers, the Bengals made it clear that they aren't those players in striped helmets that traditionally bungle their way at Heinz Field. This defense was so dominating Sunday that the Bengals won despite not scoring a touchdown on offense and losing the turnover battle.
The Cincinnati offense tried to lose the game with turnovers and failed drives. The special teams tried to lose the game with penalties that cost miles of field position. Coach Marvin Lewis even tried to lose the game with decisions that bad Madden players wouldn't make.
It didn't matter because this defense was bent on sending a message in the town where defense is revered. The front four is so fast and explosive that Cincinnati doesn't need to blitz to get to quarterbacks. Led by underrated defensive tackle Geno Atkins (2.5 sacks), the Bengals sacked Ben Roethlisberger four times -- and it certainly seemed like more -- punishing the Steelers' quarterback so hard that he was limping and wincing in pain by the fourth quarter.
The veteran secondary (it was considered old during the four-game losing streak earlier this year) keeps coming up with big plays, setting the tone early with Leon Hall's 17-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter and setting up the winning field goal with Reggie Nelson's interception with 14 seconds remaining.
You could hear the chants of "Who Dey" coming from the locker room. And who are these Bengals? What we know is this team has a defense that is playoff caliber. There's no question about that after watching this group will the Bengals to their first back-to-back playoff berths (and winning seasons) for the first time since the Reagan administration. If you take away the strike year of 1982, this is the first time the Bengals have accomplished this feat in 45 seasons of playing football. The only thing that went wrong for the Bengals on Sunday was the Baltimore Ravens beating the New York Giants, which ended Cincinnati's hopes of an AFC North title.
"This defense played lights out," wide receiver A.J. Green said. "They've been playing like this the last weeks. Defense wins championships. If we put up some points, they're going to hold them."
This time, the Bengals didn't need many points from their offense. In fact, the Cincinnati defense outscored its offense, 7-6. Andy Dalton was inaccurate (58.5 percent completion rate) and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis was nonexistent (14 yards on 15 carries). This defense had the offense's back the entire game.
Three times the Bengals offense turned the ball over in the second half (two Dalton interceptions and one Green fumble), and the Cincinnati defense didn't allow the Steelers to convert any points off of them. The Bengals forced three-and-out on the first two turnovers and didn't let Pittsburgh cross midfield after the last giveaway.
"[Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer] told us it's going to be on the defensive side to actually win this game," Atkins said. "We knew it was going to be a slugfest and basically we were going to find out who's the better defense: us or the Steelers."
The Steelers hold the top ranking, limiting teams to the fewest yards per game. But the Bengals, who rank sixth in yards allowed, certainly made the case for being the better defense.
Remove the one mistake -- a 60-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown -- and the Bengals held the Steelers to 220 yards. Cincinnati stopped one of the best third-down offenses on 12 of 14 third downs. And the Bengals didn't give up a touchdown on two possessions inside their own 20-yard line.
This success goes beyond one day at Heinz Field. Over the past seven games, the Bengals defense has given up an average of 11.1 points. In those seven games, the defense has held teams to one or no touchdowns six times (all wins).
"We're trying to make a statement," defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. "The statement hasn't been made yet."
The defense, though, did save Lewis from addressing some hard questions. In the third quarter, Lewis decided to go on fourth down-and-22 from the Pittsburgh 33-yard line instead of pinning the Steelers deep in their own territory with a punt. In the fourth quarter, Lewis chose to attempt a 56-yard field goal even though kicker Josh Brown hadn't made one beyond 55 yards since his 2003 rookie season.
How many points did the Steelers convert off those head-scratching decisions? Three points.
"I told them thanks for bailing me out -- plain, flat and simple," Lewis said as he opened his post-game news conference.
Next for the Bengals is a meaningless game for them against the Ravens before the defense likely gets another challenge against a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Cincinnati, which is locked into being the sixth seed, will probably face Tom Brady and the Patriots in the first round.
"It's one of those things where you're definitely happy, but you realize that it's not over," Hall said. "The season isn't a success just yet. We're happy about our situation, obviously. We still have work to do."