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Steelers ride out Burfict storm, conquer Bengals

Will the Pittsburgh Steelers win Super Bowl 50?

Who knows.

Even if they don’t, their efforts in 2015 won’t be entirely in vain.

That’s because thanks to the Steelers, the Bengals won’t be winning the Super Bowl.

The Steelers extended the Bengals’ playoff futility with an emotional 18-16 wild-card win Saturday night at Cincinnati.

Among Steelers fans, Whoever Plays the Ravens and Whoever Plays the Patriots are the most popular second-favorite teams.

There are plenty of intangible reasons to hate the Ravens, Patriots and even the Broncos, and the Steelers will have a chance to settle at least one of those scores during these playoffs.

The Steelers and Bengals, however, have become eye-for-an-eye rivals. The Bengals ended Le’Veon Bell’s season two years in a row. There was nothing dirty about Reggie Nelson’s hit in the 2014 season finale, but Vontaze Burfict’s hit this season at Pittsburgh was a little dicey, and he didn’t exactly show any remorse.

Then in Week 14 at Cincinnati Burfict tried to take out Ben Roethlisberger’s knees in a game in which players on both teams paid more money in fines than a lot of people earn in three years.

It remains to be seen if Burfict accomplished his mission to incapacitate Roethlisberger and ultimately sabotage the Steelers’ championship hopes. He knocked Roethlisberger out of Saturday’s game – temporarily – on what technically was a clean sack in the third quarter. But does anyone seriously think that Burfict drove Roethlisberger’s shoulder into the turf by accident?

(UPDATE: A video on Twitter reveals that Burfict whacked Roethlisberger’s shoulder with his knee after Roethlisberger was down. So no, it wasn’t a clean play.)

Ryan Shazier, who led the Steelers with 13 total tackles and was a monster on defense all night, injured Giovani Bernard with a vicious hit that forced a fumble on the previous possession. The Bengals, losing 15-0 at the time, raised holy hell over losing Bernard. Jeremy Hill had to be separated from Steelers players on the field. Burfict was going nuts on the sideline.

Seriously? It was as if no Bengal had ever inflicted harm on a Steeler.

Bengals fans then started throwing bottles on the field. The frustration over what seemed to be a fifth straight wild-card playoff defeat was starting to set in.

This escalation of tempers galvanized the Bengals. They seized the momentum by acting like thugs, and their fans weren’t acting much better. Objects were thrown at Roethlisberger as he was carted into the locker room.

It didn’t look good. There was a deflating sense that the Steelers could be without Roethlisberger for the rest of the playoffs. That would make winning the Super Bowl about as realistic as winning the lottery, and it seemed the best Steelers fans could hope for was to at least vanquish the Bengals.

Perhaps it was fitting that the Steelers played a team named for a member of the cat family, because for the rest of the game the emotions of Steelers fans were toyed with like a feline’s ball of yarn.

The Bengals scored on their next two possessions to narrow the Steelers’ lead to 15-10 with under six minutes left.

Then in a spirit-lifting development Roethlisberger appeared on the sideline in uniform with his arm still attached to his body. He didn’t go back into the game. Not yet, anyway.

The Landry Jones-led Steelers went three-and-out and Adam Jones returned Jordan Berry’s punt 24 yards to the Steelers 45. A.J. McCarron took advantage of the prime field position and threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green to give the Bengals a 16-15 lead with 1:50 left.

Roethlisberger remained on the sidelines and Jones’ next pass was intercepted by Burfict.

Burfict? Why did it have to be Burfict? What a sadistic demise for the 2015 Steelers.

At least Tim Tebow was a squeaky clean Christian. On Saturday the Steelers were about to get punked out of the playoffs by a dirty player.

The combination of sadness and disbelief that set in after that overtime defeat in Denver would instead be a cocktail of sadness and anger.

Fortunately, the Steelers still had all three of their timeouts. If they could just prevent a first down maybe they’d have enough time to get into field-goal range.

It turned out they would have plenty of time, because Shazier made the play of his career and forced Hill to fumble.

Finally, with 1:23 left Roethlisberger re-entered the game. It was apparent that his shoulder isn’t exactly fine because he wasn’t throwing the ball downfield. But he kept the Steelers’ heart beating by completing fourth-and-3 pass to Antonio Brown that moved the ball to the Bengals’ 47 with 22 seconds left. The Steelers then spent their last timeout.

Then the Bengals hurt themselves more than they’ve hurt any opposing player.

Burfict put Brown in the concussion protocol with an illegal hit and handed the Steelers 15 yards, putting them in range for a 50-yard field goal attempt. Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter went onto the field to check on Brown and had words with Adam Jones. Out came the flag for unsportsmanlike conduct on Jones, and out onto the field came Chris Boswell to kick a no-sweat 35-yard field goal with 14 seconds left.

Deion Sanders said on the NFL Network that he thought Burfict was trying to avoid Brown’s head and he questioned whether he should have been penalized. Even if Burfict suddenly discovered his conscience and tried to spare Brown as much as possible, he’s not going to get the benefit of the doubt considering his litany of transgressions.

And maybe Porter shouldn’t have been on the field. But even if he wasn’t totally innocent in the exchange with Jones, the Bengals deserve no sympathy.

While those two penalties and Hill’s fumble will weigh heavily on the Bengals for the next seven months, they still might have done enough damage to keep the Steelers from going much further in the playoffs.

“We won the game,” was all Roethlisberger would offer when asked about his shoulder.

Whether Landry Jones or a compromised Roethlisberger starts for the Steelers next Sunday at Denver, will the Broncos really have that much of an advantage at quarterback? Peyton Manning turns 40 in March. Sure, he sparked a Broncos comeback last week, but all he really did was complete five of nine passes for 69 yards.

The Steelers also could be without Brown, and that would make their quarterback less effective no matter who he is. But considering what they endured Saturday, a game without Brown seems like something they can overcome.

Now the Steelers can focus on trying to get historic retribution. The Broncos dealt them a double whammy four years ago. Tebow sent them packing in the 2011 playoffs, and Manning got them started on the wrong foot in the 2012 season opener. Now the Steelers can deny the Broncos the championship they thought Manning would bring.

Even if they don’t, they can take into the offseason the satisfaction of being in the Bengals’ heads. They’ll remain there long after Bell, Roethlisberger and Brown have healed.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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