Based on how the night was unfolding, this simply was not the way the game was supposed to end.
The Steelers began the game with about a 50.7 percent chance to win but increased their win probability to about 68 percent after kicking a field goal before the half to take a six-point lead.
After extending their lead to 15 points with 5 minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Steelers chance to win rose all the way to 96 percent. That would be its highest point until the game-winning field goal to seal the victory.
But at 96 percent, the Steelers were a long way from victory ...
Cincinnati would mount an improbable comeback led by AJ McCarron’s 98 fourth-quarter passing yards and increased its chance to win from four percent to 19 percent (after Jeremy Hill’s touchdown cut it to 15-7) to 62 percent after taking a one-point lead with 1:50 remaining.
The Steelers would get the ball back with a 19 percent chance to win, but Landry Jones immediately threw an interception causing their chance to win to plummet below 10 percent.
Again it appeared that the game was over until Hill handed the ball back on the very next play. That fumble was the seventh-biggest play of the game as the Steelers got the ball back with a 26 percent chance to win.
After a quick passes and a clutch fourth-down conversion, the Steelers had a 24 percent chance to win after taking their final timeout.
Then the Bengals’ meltdown began. After an incomplete pass, Pittsburgh’s win probability would have fallen even further to 14 percent, but Vontaze Burfict was called for an unnecessary roughness penalty (plus-30.5 WPA) and Adam Jones was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct (plus-18.5 WPA) that drastically changed the outcome of the game.
Those plays were two of the six biggest plays of the game, as measured by win probability added, and swung the game by 49 percentage points.
After a 35-yard made field goal, the Steelers’ improbable comeback was basically clinched and the Bengals had lost their eighth straight playoff game.