AFC North: 2012 WC Rapid Reaction


DENVER -- My immediate thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' loss at the Denver Broncos:

What it means: The heavily favored Steelers made a surprising early exit from the playoffs against a team that didn't have a winning record. The first game under the new overtime rules ended after one play -- an 80-yard touchdown pass by Tim Tebow. Pittsburgh had won six of its final seven games. The AFC North, which entered the playoffs with three teams, is now down to one (the Ravens).

Quick finish: It took only one play in overtime for this game to be decided. Cornerback Ike Taylor got beat on a short pass and couldn't pull down Demaryius Thomas on the game-winning 80-yard touchdown. It finished one of the worst games all season for Pittsburgh's pass defense.

Costly turnover: The Steelers came back from a 14-point deficit to tie the game on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery with 3:48 left in the fourth quarter. This came after Ryan Mundy stripped Denver running back Willis McGahee when the Broncos had just driven into Pittsburgh territory.

Crazy quarter: The Steelers had a streak of nine straight quarters without allowing a touchdown before Tebow erupted in the second quarter. Tebow threw a 30-yard touchdown and ran 8 yards for another. The 20 points allowed by the Steelers in the second quarter were the second-most they have allowed in any quarter in a playoff game since the merger, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Painful game: The Steelers entered the game without their leading rusher (Rashard Mendenhall) and leading tackler (Ryan Clark). It only got worse for Pittsburgh when two starting defensive linemen (Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton) and left tackle Max Starks left the game with injuries. The Steelers were down to three healthy defensive linemen for most of the game.

Falling short early: The Steelers moved the ball in the first quarter but had to settle for two field goals to go up 6-0. The first drive ended when the Steelers made a surprising wide receiver screen to the outside on third-and-7. The second one stopped when Antonio Brown couldn't break free after a lot of contact with a Broncos defender.

What's next: The Steelers head to an offseason in which they will face questions about their offensive line, injured starting running back and aging defense.
HOUSTON -- Here are my thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 31-10 loss at the Houston Texans:

What it means: The Bengals extended the longest current streak in NFL playoff futility. Cincinnati now hasn't won a postseason game in 21 seasons. Careless mistakes led to the Bengals' third postseason loss in seven seasons. After allowing 24 straight points, Cincinnati fell to 1-7 against teams with winning records. It was a disappointing way to end a season in which the Bengals went from 4-12 in 2010 to a playoff team this season.

Turning point: An Andy Dalton pass was intercepted at the line by Houston's J.J. Watt, who ran 29 yards for a touchdown late in the first half. This came three plays after the Texans had tied the game with a field goal. So, in a matter of 56 seconds, the Bengals went from being up by three points (10-7) to being down by seven (17-10). Cincinnati never recovered.

Costly drop: Bengals safety Chris Crocker had a chance to tie the game in the third quarter, but an interception bounced off his hands. It would have likely been a touchdown because only quarterback T.J. Yates stood between Crocker and the end zone. Three plays later, Crocker failed to provide help for a faked-out Adam Jones on a 40-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson that put the Bengals behind 24-10. In the fourth quarter, Crocker didn't push Arian Foster out of bounds on a fourth-quarter touchdown run.

Seeing red: Head coach Marvin Lewis made the head-scratcher of a decision to use both of his replay challenges in the first half. It was compounded by the fact that both challenges failed. That meant the Bengals couldn't contest a play after 4:33 in the second quarter.

Dalton's turnovers: Dalton threw three interceptions after only one in his previous six games. Of course, he wasn't helped by the pressure generated by the Texans' front seven.

Can't stop the run: It was another bad day for the Bengals' run defense, especially when it came to defending the outside. Foster ran for 153 yards and two touchdowns. This comes one game after the Ravens' Ray Rice ran for 191 yards and two touchdowns.

Wide right again: Bengals kicker Mike Nugent missed wide right on his first field goal attempt, which was nine yards longer because of a third-down sack. He sliced it wide right just like he did last week against Baltimore. This was his fourth miss in the past three weeks.

What's next: The Bengals head into what should still be a bright future. Cincinnati has two first-round picks as it looks to address the running back, guard and safety positions.

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AFC NORTH SCOREBOARD