CINCINNATI -- The throwdown at Paul Brown Stadium was the type of game that either galvanizes a team or buries it.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are about to find out which category they fall into.
After 60 minutes of haymakers, a $100 million shoulder to the turf, concussion protocols, helmets to the head, back-of-the-leg touchdown catches, Steelers assistant coaches barking at Bengals and insane momentum shifts, the Steelers left Cincinnati bruised and battered before Sunday's AFC divisional round game against Denver. Pittsburgh's two best players, Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder) and Antonio Brown (concussion), are now questionable.
At least the Steelers had a heckuva time -- when they weren't freaked out.
You know it was a wild game when Vontaze Burfict running through the tunnel and all the way to his locker room after a fourth-quarter interception is about the eighth-most newsworthy item of the night. The game was bonkers.
The Steelers have found ways to win games such as this. They can take the pounding. They can take the hits. They can roll with the wild swings of a game. The defense, despite playing brilliantly for three quarters, looked uncomfortable defending the pass late, and the Bengals marched downfield twice. Even so, the Steelers got the ball back to the offense when the game appeared over.
"We didn't break," linebacker Jarvis Jones said.
What they can't do, however, is survive a playoff run without Roethlisberger, who gave no indication after the game of the severity of his injury. Guard David DeCastro said the injury looked "pretty bad," which made him wonder if Roethlisberger had a sprained AC joint, similar to Tony Romo's recent injury. If Big Ben's injury is anything close to Romo's, his chances to perform are not good.
"I'm going to give everything I can, like I always do," Roethlisberger said of playing in Denver.
This year's Steelers average 22.4 points per game when Roethlisberger doesn't start, compared to 28.3 points when he does. Entering Saturday, Roethlisberger had thrown 454 of the Steelers' past 458 pass attempts in the playoffs.
Landry Jones instilled little confidence with his 2-of-5, 11-yard relief performance that included an interception to Burfict. Perhaps a full week of prep would help him, but the Steelers would be two-score underdogs without Roethlisberger -- and especially so without Brown.
Unlike the Bengals, the Broncos won't gift wrap 30 yards of penalties in the game's final seconds. After Cincinnati made up a 15-0 deficit, there was no reason the Bengals shouldn't win. But the Steelers will take the victory, especially considering Roethlisberger finished the game while unable to throw the ball more than 10 yards.
"You can never lose hope," safety Mike Mitchell said.
This whole season has been a prize fight for Pittsburgh, which is constantly dealing with physical play and injuries. The Steelers seem to thrive off the resilience required to shake those issues and win games.
That process is getting increasingly difficult.