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Ten plays that shaped Bengals' year: No. 4

1/24/2014
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Cincinnati Bengals' season has ended, and coaching changes have kicked off the unofficial start to the offseason, we're counting down the 10 plays that helped shape the Bengals' 11-5, AFC North championship season.

When we reach the No. 1 play, we'll add in links to each play on the countdown.

Big plays, particularly those from Cincinnati's defense, and explosive ones from the likes of Giovani Bernard, were critical to the way 2013 played out.

So far, the key plays have ranged the gamut. From James Harrison's interception against the Browns, to A.J. Green's Hail Mary haul in Baltimore, to Reggie Nelson's big blitz that set up Mike Nugent's game-winning field goal at Detroit, the plays have covered significant moments in the season.

As is the case with most top 10 lists, determining these plays was completely subjective. They could be placed in virtually any slot among these 10, or not among them at all. Some certainly won't make the cut that many believe should. It's the nature of lists. Somewhere a cut off has to come. Anyway, let's get back to it, with No. 4:

GARVIN'S HUGE HIT ON HUBER

When: Dec. 15, 2013

Where: Heinz Field, where the Bengals lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 30-20.

What happened: The Bengals had already committed a pair of major special teams errors when this play happened early in the loss. A botched, wind-swept long snap to punter Kevin Huber ended up turning into a 1-yard Steelers touchdown run a play later. Cedric Peerman's attempt at waving off Brandon Tate on what would have been a long Peerman kick return was interpreted as a fair catch signal by officials. Instead of starting the drive after the touchdown at their own 47, where Peerman ultimately went down before the penalty was ruled, the Bengals ended up starting at their own 9.

A subsequent punt set up good enough field position for the Steelers that they ended up driving and getting in the end zone for a second time. After Cincinnati's next drive stalled out, Huber was called upon for a third time to punt -- and the first quarter still hadn't finished.

With 1:27 remaining in the opening quarter and his team down 14-0, Huber's feet rested around his own 20-yard line when he let loose of a 38-yard punt that traveled straight down the middle of the field. Explosive Steelers return man Antonio Brown didn't have to drift underneath the ball to field it. Instead, he took two steps left and one step back right to settle under the ball. Then he cut, making one Bengal miss before sprinting into an alley up the middle of the field.

Just as Brown started accelerating and switching into another gear, Steelers blocker Terence Garvin put his sights on the final Bengals player standing between his returner and the end zone. It was Huber.

Garvin, charging some 20 yards across the field to catch up to Huber, made one of the league's more devastating blindside hits of the year. Brown cruised to a 67-yard punt return for touchdown. Watched in slow motion, the hit showed where Garvin's helmet made contact with Huber's neck and facemask area. When the punter hit the ground, he didn't move initially.

After several minutes of evaluation by trainers, Huber jumped up and jogged into the Bengals' locker room almost as if nothing happened. The only way you knew something serious had occurred was because he had a piece of bloodied gauze in his mouth, flapping in the bitter cold wind as he made the run. His game was over, and the Bengals -- comeback bid or not -- were, too.

What they said about it: NFL head of officials, Dean Blandino, on NFL Network two days later: "Huber, he's a punter. And the key is he's defenseless throughout the down. Even though he's pursuing the play, he still gets defenseless-player protection. You can't hit him in the head or neck, and you can't use the crown or forehead parts of the helmet to the body." (Garvin should have been flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, Blandino added).

Huber: "It's great they said it [the apology], but at the end of the day, it doesn't do anything now."

Garvin: "I fell down on the play and I got up and saw [Brown] coming toward me so I was like, 'Oh, I've got to try and help him break on this play. I wasn't out there trying to be vicious. When you're in the game, you're really just trying to make a play and help your team out."

How the Bengals' season was impacted: Cincinnati ultimately lost the game, forcing it to wait one more week before claiming a third AFC North championship. Huber's season came to an abrupt due to a broken jaw and cracked vertebrae he received from the hit. The Bengals went through two more punters before their season ended. One of those punters, Shawn Powell, will be forever remembered for his 10-yard punt that shanked into the first two rows of Paul Brown Stadium's seats.

So why does this play not only make the countdown, but comes in so high? More than any other play during the season, this one had people across the country buzzing. Player safety concerns were raised and rules terminology (what constitutes a "defenseless player") became an issue. This play couldn't have been left off the countdown for the far-ranging impact it had. Huber will be back healthy long before 2014's training camp opens.