Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers Strike Down Bengals To Clinch Division On Season’s Final Night


Dec 28, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) returns a punt for a 71-yard touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Bookend touchdowns from the spectacular Antonio Brown paced the Pittsburgh Steelers to a division-clinching 27-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday night at Heinz Field.

Brown, who returned a punt for a touchdown to start the scoring in the first quarter, teamed with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for a 63-yard connection that transformed a tight three-point game into a sure Steelers win with 3:01 to play. A slick double move by Brown got him open on the right sideline, and Roethlisberger delivered a bullet pass on target that led to a celebratory jaunt to the end zone and an AFC North title.

Brown finished with seven receptions for 139 yards in addition to his special-teams touchdown, giving him a league-leading 129 catches on the season; it’s the first time a Steeler has ever led the NFL in total receptions.

Speaking of firsts, this is Pittsburgh’s first division crown since 2010, when the Steelers made their most recent Super Bowl appearance. Heinz Field will host the franchise’s first playoff game in three years next Saturday night, when the rival Ravens make their second trip of the season to western Pennsylvania.

In addition to Brown’s individual accomplishment, Roethlisberger tied for the league lead in total passing yards with 4,635 – the same number as New Orleans’ Drew Brees. Big Ben completed 24 of 38 passes for 317 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, helping the Steelers (11-5) take care of the Bengals (10-5-1) in this winner-take-all battle.

With the score 20-17 in favor of the Steelers and 5:32 remaining, a questionable fake punt gave the Bengals the ball, but after a quick first down, the visitors handed it right back. Andy Dalton fired a completion over the middle to A.J. Green, who was stripped of the ball by Pittsburgh’s Antwon Blake. Blake also recovered the fumble at his own 30, setting up the clinching touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Brown.

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Cincinnati running back Jeremy Hill enjoyed a strong game, piling up 100 yards on 23 carries. Green had eight catches for 82 yards to lead the Bengals’ receiving corps. Dalton went 27 for 38 for 244 yards and two touchdowns, but he was intercepted twice by Brice McCain as the Steelers built a 20-10 advantage by halftime.

The third quarter was largely uneventful in terms of offense, but the Steelers suffered a significant blow when tailback Le’Veon Bell was forced out of the game with a hyperextended knee. Pittsburgh’s freshly-elected team MVP injured his leg on his sixth catch of the game, accumulating 80 receiving yards to go along with 20 on the ground.

The Sunday night crowd didn’t need an excuse to get on its feet early, but Brown gave it to them anyway with an electrifying 71-yard punt return for a touchdown just four minutes into the first quarter. After getting hemmed in on the right sideline, Brown drastically changed course and outran the Bengals down the left side for his third career punt return touchdown, all of which have come against Cincinnati.

The Bengals responded with 10 consecutive points to take the lead early in the second quarter, with Giovani Bernard‘s explosive 17-yard catch and run providing the tying touchdown late in the first. Bernard had seven receptions for 56 yards out of the Cincinnati backfield.

But after Shaun Suisham capped a nine-play drive with a 29-yard field goal to tie the game at 10, the Steelers went ahead for good on a well-executed wide receiver screen from Roethlisberger to Martavis Bryant. The 21-yard score was the eighth of Bryant’s eye-opening rookie season and pushed Pittsburgh on top with 5:52 left in the half.

Suisham’s second field goal of the quarter banged off the left upright and through from 25 yards, boosting the Steelers’ halftime advantage to 10 points. Ironically, Pittsburgh’s two longest drives of the first half both resulted in field goals, not touchdowns.

Following a scoreless third quarter, the Bengals added some drama by constructing an 89-yard touchdown drive. Tight end Jermaine Gresham hauled in a five-yard touchdown pass in the right flat from Dalton, pulling Cincinnati within three points with 11:14 to go in regulation.