Believe in the Bengals

With the momentum clearly on the side of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cincinnati Bengals showed true playoff metal scoring the winning touchdown with just 13 seconds on the clock. QB Jon Kitna found TE Matt Schobel down the middle of the end zone from 18 yards out, taking the lead, 24-20, when it counted the most.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals started out the game true to form, the form of 2003. The Bengals offense had no problem dealing with the Steelers defense, converting 5 of 7 third downs. Jon Kitna (18 for 32, 271 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs) continued his career year by going 11 for 20, 146 yards and two touchdowns against no interceptions, leading the way to a 14-3 advantage at the half.

The Bengals rushing tandem of Corey Dillon (10 rushes for 48 yards) and Rudi Johnson (10 rushes for 29 yards) was also working, gouging the supposed tough Steelers run defense for 72 yards in just two quarters. Cincinnati had little trouble moving the ball and putting up points.

While the Bengals were already enjoying a good day, the Steelers' struggles continued. The offense started the game with a characteristic, at least this season, three plays and out. A big run by Amos Zereoue, for 26 yards, was called back due to a holding penalty. The Steelers were moving the ball, but unable to hit the big play.

While the Bengals were busy making the Steelers pay for their defensive mistakes, particularly Chad Scott on the 51-yard touchdown pass to Kelley Washington, the Steelers failed to cash in on any of the opportunities presented to them.

Towards the end of the second quarter, Tommy Maddox found his rhythm, moving the Steelers quickly to the Bengals 25 yard line. But with LT Marvel Smith once again missing in action, Oliver Gibson and Justin Smith combined to sack Maddox, knocking him out of the game, temporarily.

Backup QB Charlie Batch came in and hit WR Plaxico Burress for 22-yards, down to the 10-yard line, setting up first and goal. On the very next play, Batch's throw bounced off Antwaan Randle El's facemask, in what would have been a sure touchdown. The Steelers wouldn't get another chance as Batch, in an attempt to avoid a sack, threw a pass that went backwards. Whether it was a true backward pass or caused by contact by the pass rushers was irrelevant in that the throw was ruled a fumble, and DT John Thornton recovered for the Bengals.

The Steelers opened the second half on offense, Maddox back at the helm and moving Pittsburgh downfield. Once again the other shoe dropped when the Steelers got inside Bengals territory. Maddox, looking for Hines Ward, failed to notice CB Artrell Hawkins underneath. The interception seemed to indicate that it was Cincinnati's day, their season.

One thing did change during the break at halftime. Pittsburgh's defense made a few adjustments and came out with a renewed intensity. Suddenly the Bengals running game stalled and Kitna looked much more like the quarterback that couldn't seize the starting job in 2002.

After another poor punt by Kyle Richardson, the Steelers marched 75 yards for their first touchdown of the day, Jerome Bettis plunging in from 1-yard out on 4th down. Both Plaxico Burress (6 receptions, 112 yards) and Ward (13 receptions, 149 yards, and 1 touchdown) were involved in some key receptions and each finished with over 100 yards receiving.

The Bengals went three-and-out on their next series. Despite still being up 14-10, Cincinnati was in big trouble and the Pittsburgh crowd could sense the imminent comeback.

At this point, the Maddox and Ward show took over. However, the drive would stall on a Maddox misfire to Ward, the Steelers settling for a 39-yard Jeff Reed field goal, inching closer to the Bengals, 14-13.

Cincinnati fought back, showing this time they had more than one punch. On third and 8, Kitna delivered a 58-yard strike to WR Chad Johnson (6 receptions, 117 yards, 1 TD), who had slipped behind the coverage and finally pushed out of bounds at the Steelers 8-yard line.

Mistakes plagued the Bengals offense that committed two delay of game penalties and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that moved the ball back to the 25. The Steelers defense held and Cincinnati settled for a field goal.

Both the Steelers and the Bengals failed to generate any offense over the next two series. With 4:20 left in the game, it was now or never for the Steelers. Pittsburgh went to its money player, Hines Ward. Ward was clearly in pain, his back aching from a few hits. Somehow he played through it, only missing one snap. Maddox moved the Steelers methodically into the red zone, finding Ward wide open for a 16-yard touchdown pass.

The Steelers finally had the lead, 20-17. There were only 70 seconds left, but the Bengals just needed a field goal. But Cincinnati had yet to really figure out the Steelers defense in the second half and the fans in Pittsburgh were already celebrating an emotional victory.

Jeff Reed kicked off into the wind, something kickers on both teams struggled with (or benefited from) during the game. Josh Miller had a punt blown for 69 yards in the first quarter while Richardson, facing the gusts, punted his first time for just 33. KR Peter Warrick returned Reed's shallow kick to the 48-yard line, giving the Bengals excellent field position.

Maybe a few Steelers fans were hoping for overtime, but Kitna and the Bengals would not be denied this time, not this year. Cincinnati showed Pittsburgh how to make the big plays at the right time. The Bengals showed the Steelers how to win. Even the best half of football the Steelers have played in 2003 wasn't good enough to come out on top. For the Bengals, they are on to bigger and better things, on to Baltimore.

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