Upset win gives Bengals needed momentum heading toward crucial offseason

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals were listlessly floating toward the end of an uninspiring season until safety Vonn Bell interceded on Monday night.

A few moments after Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster caught a pass in the middle of the field, Bell lowered his shoulder through Smith-Schuster, jarring the ball loose and flooring the receiver in the process.

Not only was it the turning point in Cincinnati's 27-17 victory, but it could be another inflection point for the Bengals' season.

For weeks, it appeared any hope of progressing through their rebuild was shattered after rookie quarterback Joe Burrow's season-ending knee injury on Nov. 22. But with a win against the 11-3 Steelers, the Bengals (3-10-1) have a chance to gain some momentum late in the season.

"We needed this, to have this feeling," Bengals quarterback Ryan Finley said. "We needed to share that in the locker room. It feels really good."

At the start of the season, the December portion of the schedule was going to show the Bengals where they were in their rebuilding process under second-year coach Zac Taylor. Once Burrow went down in Week 11, not only did that effort stall, but it raised questions about Taylor and the foundation he was trying to build.

Before Monday night, there was no sign that the Bengals were going to win again season. They entered the Steelers game as 14.5-point underdogs and had not beaten Pittsburgh since 2015. But the Bengals jumped out to a 17-0 lead, withstood a third-quarter and sustained a couple of drives in the fourth quarter to seal the win.

Taylor said his fifth win in two years didn't feel like the biggest of his coaching career because it's what he comes to expect on a weekly basis. But 24 losses in two years have been the reality for the Bengals.

Throughout this season, Taylor watches everything from practices to mundane interactions, looking for a lull of energy that accompanies apathetic teams with nothing to play for. Even with two games remaining this season, he's still waiting.

"I'm ready to call them out on it and I haven't found it yet," Taylor said.

That's a good sign for a team that can still accomplish some significant things in their final two games. On Sunday, the Bengals hit the road to face the Houston Texans (4-10), who are on a three-game losing streak under an interim coaching staff.

A win will give the Bengals back-to-back victories for the first time under Taylor and a road victory that has eluded them since Week 4 of the 2018 season.

But more importantly, it could provide Cincinnati the belief it needs heading into a crucial 2021. The victory over the Steelers was proof that the Bengals can play well enough to beat good teams without Burrow or one of the many other key contributors on injured reserve.

"Those guys (are) going to the playoffs," Bell said of Pittsburgh. "It shows the world tonight we can play with anybody."

Picking up a win against the Texans or even against the Baltimore Ravens (9-5) in the season finale indicates the Bengals could be on the verge of opening that playoff window. With another productive offseason, a solid draft class and Burrow's return for the start of the season, Cincinnati could be in a position to contend for its first playoff berth since 2015.

Last season, the Bengals rallied to force overtime in Week 16 against the Miami Dolphins before losing. But in addition to sealing the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft that the franchise used to draft Burrow, that game showed the resolve Cincinnati still had in spite of losing.

The win over Pittsburgh on Monday was similar in that regard. Except this time, the Bengals had a win to show for their effort and gained a key example of how their struggles can benefit them in the future.

"It's just been a tough year, tough road," Bengals running back Giovani Bernard said. "But I'm just grateful that I've been able to be a part of those tough times.

"Because when things like this happen, it just feels that much sweeter."