Steelers leave Cincinnati bruised, battered -- and alive in AFC playoffs

CINCINNATI -- Thirty yards.

Of course, this rivalry came down to 30 yards of inexplicable penalties.

The Pittsburgh Steelers dislike Vontaze Burfict with a passion, so they will gladly take that 15-yard personal-foul penalty on his vicious helmet shot to Antonio Brown in the final seconds.

It won them the game.

The Steelers, falling apart in the 14 minutes without the injured Ben Roethlisberger, watched the Bengals implode on Pittsburgh's way to an 18-16 victory Saturday in Cincinnati with penalties from Burfict and Pacman Jones.

This game was enough to make you feel queasy. You knew it would come to this with these two teams trading helmet shots at the end. The Steelers had a nasty one on Giovani Bernard, too. The whole scene was surreal, with players and coaches screaming at different points of the game.

What’s crazy is the momentum had shifted.

The Steelers’ grip kept slipping, finger by finger. A.J. Green had stepped on the pinky with a back-breaking touchdown in the final two minutes.

The Steelers were in full control, until they weren’t, until they were again, in time for Chris Boswell’s chip-shot winner. The results without Big Ben in the game were as bad as you'd expect. The Bengals' offense awoke the same time the Steelers' went to sleep under Landry Jones.

It shouldn’t have been that way, but the Bengals still don’t know how to win come playoff time, and the Steelers capitalized.

And the Steelers are still dangerous -- a contender for these playoffs.

What it means: Sounds corny, but this was a team win in every sense. The defense picked up the slack early after promising but erratic play during the season. The unit was brilliant in the first half. The running backs were steady without DeAngelo Williams. Roethlisberger fought back to see the field for a final drive. If there’s a positive to a game that almost slipped away, it’s Big Ben's resilience. That will help for the trip to Denver, where the Steelers will face the top-seeded Broncos next Sunday.

What were they thinking?: A running play in the final seconds when driving the field for a winning score? Not ideal. ... Also, Steelers assistant Mike Munchak had great hands as a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, but putting them on Reggie Nelson from the sideline cost the Steelers 15 yards. The two got tangled after a running play and Munchak’s hands grabbed a handful of Nelson’s hair. The penalty stunted a productive drive late in the first quarter.

One reason to get excited: The Steelers’ three most recent first-round picks came up big. Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones made arguably the play of his career with a strip of AJ McCarron, resulting in a crucial third-quarter turnover. Outside linebacker Bud Dupree was disruptive. And Ryan Shazier was instinctive in zone coverage, with a key pass breakup in the first half and a big (if dirty) hit on Bernard in the second. He also forced the key fumble on Jeremy Hill late in the fourth. If these three keep playing this well, this defense might have something.

One reason for concern: Roethlisberger leaving the field on a cart was concerning, to say the least, though he did jog back on for the final drive. Roethlisberger landed hard on his right shoulder on a Burfict sack. It’s not hyperbole to say Roethlisberger missing a quarter of football Saturday night changed the complexion of the AFC playoffs, at least for a while. Otherwise, penalties were an issue. The Steelers had committed 10 offenses for 142 yards by the midway-fourth-quarter mark. But for the most part, this was a convincing performance with everyone healthy.

Game ball: Martavis Bryant for his 10-yard touchdown catch. It might be one of the most acrobatic in the game’s history. Unreal. Bryant responded in a big way to Roethlisberger’s “toughen up” challenge with the touchdown and a 44-yard rush on a reverse.

Ouch: Roethlisberger’s shoulder injury doesn’t appear to be serious. Fullback Will Johnson left the game with a hamstring injury and did not return. Otherwise, the Steelers stayed relatively healthy.