The Pittsburgh Steelers are back on top of the AFC North.
Antonio Brown returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown and added a clinching 63-yard scoring grab with 2:50 to go in the Steelers’ 27-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday night.
Pittsburgh (11-5) earned its first division title since 2010 by sweeping the season series from the Bengals (10-5-1). The Steelers are the No. 3 seed in the AFC and will host Baltimore in the wild-card round Saturday night. The Bengals are the No. 5 seed and will play at AFC South champion Indianapolis on Sunday.
Brown had 212 all-purpose yards, including the late dazzling catch and run to the end zone.
The victory came at a potentially high cost. Running back Le’Veon Bell left in the third quarter with a hyperextended right knee following a collision with Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson.
Nelson hit Bell low at the end of a 19-yard reception and the second-year back — voted the club’s Most Valuable Player by his teammates last week — lay on the field for several minutes. He gingerly jogged to the sideline before being taken to the locker room to chants of “MVP! MVP!” Bell set a franchise record for total offense this season and has been one of the catalysts for Pittsburgh’s postseason return after a two-year absence.
The Steelers will host a playoff game for the first time since they won the North in 2010 on their way to an AFC championship. The franchise has retooled over the last three years, with Brown leading the way.
Cincinnati drew to 20-17 and was driving late in the fourth quarter when wide receiver A.J. Green was stripped by Pittsburgh’s Antwon Blake, who then fell on the ball. The Bengals’ third turnover ended up costing them any shot at a second straight division title.
Ben Roethlisberger, battling an illness that forced him to miss warmups, found Brown down the right sideline. Brown split two Cincinnati defenders then raced 63 yards for a score on his 129th reception of the season, the second-highest total in NFL history. Roethlisberger finished 24-for-38 for 317 yards and two touchdowns to go with an interception.
Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton completed 27 of 38 passes for 244 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Green, who torched the Steelers for a career-high 224 yards three weeks ago, was held to eight receptions for 82 yards. Both of Dalton’s picks were on overthrows to his favorite target.
Brown kick-started the Steelers early in the first quarter, fielding a punt from Kevin Huber at the Pittsburgh 29 and raced to his right only to reverse back to his left, pushing teammate Shamarko Thomas into Huber’s way to clear a path to the end zone.
Cincinnati evened it in the first. Dalton overcame a poorly overthrown interception on Cincinnati’s second possession by converting a fourth-and-three with a 14-yard pass to Brandon Tate then following it up with a nifty flip to Bernard after escaping the pass rush. Bernard leapt over two Steelers before reaching over the goal line.
Roethlisberger skipped his usual pregame warmup, not coming on to the field until the defense was being introduced just minutes before the kickoff while dealing with flu-like symptoms. He passed for 224 yards through three quarters, but also turned it over twice, fumbling a botched snap and tossing an interception into double-coverage in the third quarter with Pittsburgh trying to extend its lead.
Roethlisberger was sharp for much of the first half despite the illness. A 26-yard throw to Bell set up Shaun Suisham’s field goal that tied it at 10 midway through the second quarter. Dalton threw high to Green, who tipped the ball into the hands of McCain. A lengthy return set the Steelers up at the Cincinnati 28. Two plays later, Bryant took a wide receiver screen and darted to the end zone for his eighth touchdown of the season.
The Steelers tacked on a field goal in the final minute of the half.
Cincinnati 7 3 0 7 — 17
Pittsburgh 7 13 0 7 — 27
Pit—A.Brown 71 punt return (Suisham kick), 10:50.
Cin—Bernard 17 pass from Dalton (Nugent kick), 2:43.
Cin—FG Nugent 39, 12:32.
Pit—FG Suisham 29, 7:36.
Pit—Bryant 21 pass from Roethlisberger (Suisham kick), 5:52.
Pit—FG Suisham 25, :40.
Cin—Gresham 5 pass from Dalton (Nugent kick), 11:14.
Pit—A.Brown 63 pass from Roethlisberger (Suisham kick), 2:50.
First downs 19 18
Total Net Yards 337 346
Rushes-yards 29-116 18-29
Passing 221 317
Punt Returns 1-6 2-84
Kickoff Returns 5-114 2-52
Interceptions Ret. 2-2 2-34
Comp-Att-Int 27-38-2 24-39-2
Sacked-Yards Lost 3-23 0-0
Punts 3-49.3 3-39.7
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 2-1
Penalties-Yards 5-45 1-10
Time of Possession 34:58 25:02
RUSHING—Cincinnati, Hill 23-100, Bernard 3-8, Dalton 3-8. Pittsburgh, Bell 8-20, Harris 5-7, Roethlisberger 4-3, Archer 1-(minus 1).
PASSING—Cincinnati, Dalton 27-38-2-244. Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger 24-38-1-317, Wing 0-1-1-0.
RECEIVING—Cincinnati, Green 8-82, Bernard 7-56, Hewitt 3-31, Gresham 3-20, Tate 2-22, Hill 2-10, Sanu 1-16, Sanzenbacher 1-7. Pittsburgh, A.Brown 7-128, Bell 6-80, Miller 3-41, Wheaton 3-17, Archer 2-19, Bryant 1-21, Johnson 1-11, Pouncey 1-0.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Cincinnati, Nugent 50 (WR).