Steelers overcome scary injury, brutal hits in Cincinnati to win seventh straight

CINCINNATI -- Maybe the Steelers can beat the New England Patriots after all -- if Pittsburgh has anyone on its team left to play.

Pittsburgh's ugly but resilient 23-20 win on Monday in Cincinnati was a brutal brand of punishment, which is saying something for a Steelers-Bengals matchup. Several players took big hits, and some left the field because of them.

In the end, though, the Steelers had a moment of glee when they rushed the field after Chris Boswell's game winner from 38 yards out as time expired. Boswell's leg extended a win streak for a second straight week, this time to seven games.

Down 17-0 late in the first half, the Steelers kept their composure, made a few timely plays and let the Bengals implode with 173 yards in penalties. Ben Roethlisberger threw two second-half TD passes in the comeback.

"I think at halftime, we came in here, and it felt like there was no panic," said Roethlisberger, who finished with 290 yards, surpassing 50,000 for his career. "We got three points at the end of the half, which is nice, but we kind of came in and just said, 'Hey, we didn't play well in the first half. Let's go play better and see what happens.' That's what I'm most proud about this group is that we're resilient. We fight all to the end of the game, literally."

Antonio Brown's body-contorting, 6-yard touchdown catch with 3:51 left explained exactly where the Steelers are as a team. They have the talent to overcome bad starts, with Brown taking a helmet shot from George Iloka after the catch yet popping up unfazed.

But man, are the Steelers bad when they start poorly.

Sure, the image of Ryan Shazier lying on the Paul Brown Stadium turf while players were visibly shaken undoubtedly played a part in the Steelers' uninspired first half. The linebacker was carted off with a back injury and taken by ambulance to a hospital.

Still, the game was following familiar road-game script for the Steelers, who struggled to pass and struggled to cover early. This outing felt a bit like last season's 30-15 loss to Miami, in which several defensive backups were forced into action and couldn't stop the bleeding. It turned into the 2016 playoff game in Cincinnati, in which the hits were just as vicious and the Steelers just made fewer mistakes than Cincinnati in order to win.

The defense was showing signs of leaking before a swift second-half rebound. The Bengals' offense ranked 28th in third-down conversion rate (33.6 percent) but started 7-of-12 on Monday. A rush defense that has held opponents to 76 yards per game let Cincinnati go for 122 yards on the ground through the first 50 minutes. The Bengals' 253 yards in the first half were the most Pittsburgh has allowed before halftime the past two seasons.

The Steelers had gotten zero pressure, and Bengals wideout A.J. Green was running so freely that veteran corner Coty Sensabaugh got benched for rookie Cameron Sutton.

But the Steelers showed signs of life in the second half, which plays to their identity for much of the second half of the season.

"We have a no-blink group," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We've been under duress in that stadium against that team before. Maybe that past experience helps us in some way, but largely, it's the men and the belief in each other -- belief in our approach -- and making the necessary plays to make that belief reality."

Green went without a catch in the second half. Le'Veon Bell pummeled Dre Kirkpatrick -- who took the Bell stiff-arm six weeks earlier -- on a fourth-and-1 run to set up a long drive and a field goal. Linebackers Vince Williams and Bud Dupree followed with sacks.

The no-huddle offense ran 26 plays in the fourth quarter, more than the Steelers ran in the first half (24).

JuJu Smith-Schuster took the physicality too far with a vicious block with 6:59 left that elicited a targeting penalty. Vontaze Burfict was the victim -- and another athlete who was carted off, one of at least six key players injured in this slugfest.

Bell, for one, wasn't fazed by the physicality.

"It's been worse," said Bell, who finished with 182 total yards and a touchdown.

The last time the Steelers overcame a deficit of at least 17 points was in 2015 against the Denver Broncos. The Bengals were a predictable culprit to give that up Monday, having blown eight such leads in their history.

After setting up Boswell's deciding field goal, Roethlisberger hugged Brown, and both looked exhausted.

The Steelers have a chance to finish the season on a great note. But will they have the energy to get there?