- Scott Brown, ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter
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What it means: The Steelers stayed mathematically alive for the postseason, albeit barely. Unless a ton of things come to pass, the Steelers’ most impressive win of the season will have come too late for them to avoid missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in their seven years under coach Mike Tomlin. The Steelers dominated from the outset, quickly answering any questions about how they would play with the postseason all but out of their reach. They erupted for 21 points in the first 15 minutes, dominating a quarter in which they too often had been owned this season. The Steelers had been outscored 77-43 in the first quarter before their final primetime game of the season. They didn’t allow a point against the Bengals.
Stock watch: The defense looked anything but old or a group that was just playing out the string, limiting the Bengals to 91 yards in the first half. But a pair of special-teams plays shaped the second meeting of the season between the AFC North rivals -- and helped Pittsburgh avoid a season sweep by the Bengals for the first time since 2009. A bobbled snap by Kevin Huber resulted in the Bengals punter getting tackled on Cincinnati’s 1-yard line, and two plays later Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell scored the first touchdown of the game. Huber’s night got much worse near the end of the quarter. Terence Garvin obliterated Huber on one of the blocks that helped spring Antonio Brown for a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown. The block left Huber with a fractured jaw, and it could lead to a fine if the NFL determines Garvin violated the Hines Ward Rule, which prohibits a blocker from using his shoulder, forearm or helmet to hit a player from behind or the side.
Woodley sidelined again: LaMarr Woodley can’t seem to stay healthy, and it’s fair to wonder if the Dec. 29 regular-season finale against the Browns will be his final one at Heinz Field in a Steelers uniform. Woodley hasn’t been the same player since injuring his hamstring more than two years ago, and the Steelers can’t justify the contract that makes Woodley the highest-paid defensive player in franchise history. Woodley, who signed a six-year, $61.5 million deal in 2011, aggravated the calf injury that sidelined him for three games earlier this season. And he is not even the best pass-rusher on the Steelers when healthy. If the Steelers have to choose between keeping Woodley or signing Jason Worilds after the season, the decision looks like a no-brainer.
Tough sledding for Bell: Bell averaged just 2.4 yards per carry and seemed to be a little too indecisive while rushing for 57 yards. But he also caught five passes for 50 yards and again showed glimpses of what kind of runner he can be at this level. He stopped Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson in his tracks with a withering stiff arm on the way to one of his more productive runs of the night. An earlier run, in which Bell hurdled Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, was brought back because of a holding penalty on tight end Matt Spaeth. Bell joined Franco Harris and Bam Morris as the only rookie running backs in franchise history to gain at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage.
What’s next: The Steelers play the Green Bay Packers next Sunday at Lambeau Field. The game could mark the return of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has been out since early November with a broken collarbone. The Packers remained in playoff contention Sunday with a come-from-behind win at Dallas, increasing the chances that Rodgers will play against the Steelers.