Steelers 18 – Bengals 16:
Pittsburgh spent the first three quarters slowly building a 15-0 lead, but were never quite able to pull away and put meaningful distance between themselves and the Bengals. As brilliant as Ben Roethlisberger has been this year, Pittsburgh’s passing attack proved little match for the Cincinnati defense and the torrential Saturday evening rain. He passed for just 229 yards on 31 attempts. Antonio Brown was his usual brilliant self, on the receiving end of half of Roethlisberger’s passing yards (119 yards on 7 receptions).
There’s a familiar script for games played in such miserable weather conditions: passing game dies down, it’s just going to be one of those grind-it-out ugly games that’s won on the lines. This game was not much different. What was surprising is who came out on the right side of that trench battle. In the absence of starting running back Le’Veon Bell and backup running back up DeAngelo Williams, scrap heap running backs Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman acclimated themselves extraordinarily well to this game. Todman was a firecracker out of the backfield, gaining 65 yards on just 11 carries, and Toussaint’s 60 receiving yards made him an invaluable passing option out of the backfield on a night when most of Pittsburgh’s wide receivers struggled. It’s hard to place much meaning on a game played out in these circumstances, but if Pittsburgh fans are looking for reasons to be optimistic going forward, one is that there aren’t many defenses better than Cincinnati’s and Toussaint and Todman more than held their own.
On the other side of the ball, the Bengals’ rushing attack was disappointing in a game when they needed to assert themselves. The Bengals’ two-headed monster of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard has been running behind the NFL’s best offensive line when it comes to run blocking. We mentioned in our preview that Pittsburgh’s defense was deceptively good at stopping the run, but on a night when the pass was just not a viable option, Cincinnati needed to get the better of the ground battle. Pittsburgh shut them down, holding them to just 3.8 yards/carry on 24 attempts.
When the 4th Quarter began, it seemed as though the Bengals were about to bow out meekly in an unmemorable Round 1 game again, but down went Ben Roethlisberger and the Bengals roared back to life. A 42-yard pass interference penalty against AJ Green set up the touchdown that brought the Bengals back within one possession. After two more scoring drives, a team that had looked like they were running out the clock on their season for 45 minutes of football held a 16-15 lead, ready to exorcise Marvin Lewis’ playoff demons as Head Coach. And then, the Bengals lost their damned minds.
A few words about Vontaze Burfict’s hit on Antonio Brown:
- Yes, the referees made the correct call. That hit checks just about every box on the list of plays that the NFL is trying to get out of the game so that we, the fans, feel like we’re just spending more time in purgatory instead of going straight to hell when we die for enjoying it so much. Head as the primary point of contact? Check. Not even pretending to be making a play on the ball? Check. Defenseless Receiver? Check.
- Apparently this hit was in response to Ryan Shazier’s helmet-to-helmet hit on Giovani Bernard earlier in the game. That hit probably should have been called as well, as Shazier clearly led with the crown of his helmet in clear violation of the rules. However, that play strikes me as infinitely more defensible than Burfict’s. Shazier should have kept his head up. He also can’t necessarily be faulted for not knowing the Bernard would turn inside and upfield instead of continuing his route to the outside and the sideline like 99% of running backs do in that situation. Whether or not Bernard was “no longer defenseless” as Phil Simms pointed out for doing so seems insignificant compared to the larger point: the size and speed of players in the NFL in 2016 makes it physically impossible for this game to be governed into safety. But, Burfict’s hit strikes me as much more preventable than Shazier’s.
- Even if your take on Shazier’s hit is “‘No longer defenseless’ my left nut! Crown of the helmet!”, the idea of make-up calls has never made sense to me. “Well, you got one call wrong, that means that you need to get more wrong.” The best thing the referees can do to make up for a blown call is to get the rest of them right. They did.
- Vontaze Burfict is an asshole who makes it harder to like football. This is a guy who nut-taps opponents on the field, twists knees, dives at ankles, and repeatedly levels defenseless receivers both on and off the ball. One could argue that every play needs to be judged as an isolated incident, but when you play the way Burfict does – effectively, ruthlessly, brutally – you lose the benefit of the doubt. If a fun and generally likable team in a renaissance year getting eliminated from the Playoffs is what stops things like this from happening, it’s a worthy sacrifice.
15 yard penalties to Burfict and Adam Jones set up the game-winning field goal for a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. A team that entered Week 17 needing a lot of help just to get into the Playoffs will travel to Denver next weekend to play for a spot in the AFC Championship game.
Chiefs 30 – Texans 0
In my preview, I concluded that despite home-field advantage and a few exceptional talents, the Texans were completely out of their depth in this matchup and that the only way they could win this game would be to ride amazing performances from J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins to victory. I now see how wrong I was in that assessment, because Hopkins and Watt both played very well and the Texans still got waxed in a game they never appeared to belong in.
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith put forth the sort of underwhelming though undeniably efficient performance we’ve come to expect. He completed 17 of 22 passes for 190 yards and a Touchdown. The Texans were effective in stopping Kansas City’s league-best rushing attack, but Andy Reid was stubborn in his gameplan and eventually wore his opponent down. If you take out Alex Smith’s 27 yards of scrambles, the Chiefs averaged a meager 3.5 yards per carry, yet Reid still insisted on running the ball a whopping 37 times. Repeatedly doing something that plainly shouldn’t be classified as great in-game coaching, but Reid could stick with his preferred method of attack because of the complete ineptitude of his offense’s counterparts in Houston.
Brian Hoyer had one of the worst games I’ve ever seen a quarterback have, a statement I make without the faintest hint of hyperbole. He averaged 4 yards per passing attempt and tossed 4 Interceptions, including a backbreaking pick on the Kansas City two yard line in the first half to kill a promising drive. Houston Head Coach Bill O’Brien was correct to not take Hoyer out of the game, afterall Brandon Weeden is not floating the sinking ship in a playoff game. However, this game serves as a reminder of the difference made by the presence of a good, competent quarterback like Alex Smith. The Texans have a few really solid offensive players and a very exciting defense. And until they find someone who can simply give his teammates a chance to play to their strengths, Houston is going nowhere fast.
Kansas City has now won their last 11 games. They go to New England in a game that promises to be very interesting.
Check back here on Thursday afternoon, when we’ll have your AFC Divisional preview to get you ready for next weekend. Divisional Weekend is usually one of the best weekends of the year to be a football fan. Time to get really excited.