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Dream Scenario For Bengals Transforms Into Nightmare On One Fateful Play

The Bengals lost to the Steelers in a potential division-clinching game Sunday. Worse, they may have lost Andy Dalton for the season in an expected bloodbath that played more like a beatdown.

Ouch! Injuries are catching up with the Bengals, and so are the Steelers.

The expected AFC North bloodbath Sunday between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh devolved into a shoving match during warm-ups before the game even started.

Once the contest got going between the arch rivals in Cincinnati, the shoving continued and Bengals started dropping like flies, included among them quarterback Andy Dalton (thumb), tight end Tyler Eifert (concussion), safety Geege Iloka (groin), and linebacker Vontaze Burfict for a variety of reasons throughout the game.

Missing four of their best players and three bona fide Pro Bowl candidates for much of the contest, the predictable ensued at Paul Brown Stadium. Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati, 33-20, avenging a 16-10 loss to the Bengals in Pittsburgh.

By the end of Sunday's game, there were more Steelers fans in the stands than Bengals fans at the sold-out divisional showdown. Among those remaining supporting the Bengals were in shock that this once promising season and prospective postseason may be hanging on a Dalton digit.

Adding injury to insult, Dalton slammed his right thumb on the knee of Steelers defensive end Stephon Truitt while making a tackle on Truitt's interception. Dalton was looking for running back Giovani Bernard on a first-quarter pass. But Bernard didn't handle his first assignment on the play, chip-blocking Truitt. Instead, Bernard made a move and turned around to wait for the quick dump-off. The unblocked Truitt read it, and stepped in front of Bernard just as Dalton let go of the 2-yard pass.

The Bengals' ultimate dreams for the season may have been dashed when Dalton tried to tackle Truitt. The quarterback was quickly out of the game. He returned wearing a black cast on his right throwing hand. After the contest, it was announced that he has a fractured right thumb. He is seeing a specialist Monday to get a better idea of how much time he'll miss.

That ushered in backup AJ McCarron, in a result that left the Steelers (8-5) two games behind the Bengals (10-3) in the division race with three games to play. The Bengals went from being the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff chase to No. 3 immediately following the loss.

The Steelers mixed it up with the Bengals during pregame warmups and then led the entire way in the game, sending Cincinnati to its first lopsided defeat. It's the Bengals' third loss in five games following an 8-0 start.

More than games, they are also losing players, important players, after going generally unscathed on the injury front during the first half of the schedule.

The Bengals are hoping Dalton is not lost for the season. The stated team-wide goal since the beginning of training camp has been to make the playoffs for the fifth year in a row and win a playoff game for the first time in 25 years. Some of those goals could be in doubt with the NFL player of the year candidate on the sidelines for the foreseeable future, with the absolute certainty that he won't be 100 percent the rest of the season no matter how long it lasts for the Bengals.

McCarron, playing in his first Bengals season after sitting out his rookie year while recovering from injuries, received his first extensive NFL action. For the most part, he showed well, completing 22 of 32 passes for 280 yards with two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions for a 90.6 rating. He was sacked three times.

McCarron also showed that he wasn't getting reps with the first-team offense all season after taking snaps on the scout team. That will change, beginning with the next practice.

It was the mistakes that did him in. William Gay picked off McCarron and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown, giving Pittsburgh a 23-7 third-quarter lead. The Bengals never recovered, though they pulled to within 13 twice in the fourth quarter.

The Steelers led 13-0 on DeAngelo Williams' 1-yard touchdown run, capping an 80-yard game-opening drive, and a pair of Chris Boswell second-quarter field goals. Boswell hit a third field goal of the quarter just before halftime, but not before McCarron showed his upside and hit wide receiver A.J. Green with a 66-yard touchdown pass with 6:23 to go in the half.

Williams rushed for 76 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- who has had an injury this season, missed time, and recovered -- kept Pittsburgh rolling with its fifth game in a row with at least 30 points scored, a franchise record.

Roethlisberger finished 30 of 39 passing for 282 yards without a touchdown, but with an interception at the hands of safety Reggie Nelson, his NFL-leading eighth pick of the season. It was one of the Bengals' few highlights. The lowlight: Big Ben is 18-7 all-time against Cincinnati.

Tight end Heath Miller was his top target, with 10 catches for 66 yards. Receiver Antonio Brown led the Steelers with 87 yards receiving on seven grabs.

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