CINCINNATI -- There were no pregame fights or in-game scuffles and penalty yards were kept to a minimum. It was downright tame by Cincinnati Bengals-Pittsburgh Steelers standards, at least for 60 minutes.
But the end result was the same on Sunday. The Bengals (4-2) lost to the Steelers (3-2-1) for the seventh straight game, 28-21, and opened the door for Pittsburgh to climb back to the top of the division.
The Bengals, who simply have not been able to exorcise their demons against Pittsburgh, looked like they were finally going to do it after executing a late touchdown drive to go ahead by one point.
Instead, they lost their seventh straight against Pittsburgh after leaving 1:18 on the clock for Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. They gashed a depleted Bengals defense, appearing to set up for a game-winning field goal before wide receiver Antonio Brown ran in for a 31-yard touchdown, essentially untouched.
"It's a 60 minute game, and we've got to play 60 minutes. We had them. We let them get away," Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said.
The Bengals were left to dissect another frustrating loss afterward, and were visibly upset in the locker room.
"It sucks. It sucks. ... imagine how we feel, how the fans feel. It sucked," Kirkpatrick said.
These are the odd things that seem to happen in every Bengals-Steelers contest lately, from injuries, to fights, to inexplicable blown leads. It's part of the reason the tension between the two teams is also sky high. When the game was over, a scuffle broke out with players on both sides throwing punches.
It didn’t help that the typically physical contest appeared to take its toll on the Bengals more than it did the Steelers. The Bengals first lost linebacker Nick Vigil, then cornerback Darqueze Dennard was declared out. They lost starting safety Shawn Williams to a concussion as well.
That’s why next week has all the makings of a letdown, and it could reshape the course of the Bengals’ season. The Bengals will travel to play the Kansas City Chiefs in prime time, potentially down several starters. The Bengals were embarrassed at home last year by the lowly Bears one week after an emotional game against Pittsburgh that left them without several starters against Chicago.
A promising 4-1 start could quickly turn into 4-3 if the Bengals can’t regroup quickly. But after losing yet another heartbreaker, it's certainly a tall task.
The Bengals have shown they have the fortitude early in the season to win challenging games, but this is their first true test of adversity. It will be interesting to see how they respond.