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NFL Recap (Cincinnati-Pittsburgh)
Posted: Sun December 20, 1998 at 6:53 p.m. ESTCINCINNATI 25, PITTSBURGH 24
PITTSBURGH (Ticker) -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a fixture in the playoffs during the Bill Cowher era, but not this year.
Doug Pelfrey kicked four field goals, including a 21-yarder with 5:12 remaining, as the Cincinnati Bengals snapped a nine-game losing streak and knocked their hated rivals out of the playoffs with a 25-24 victory. Ironically, the Bengals' last victory also came against Pittsburgh, a 25-20 win in Cincinnati in Week Six. It was Cincinnati's first season sweep of the Steelers since 1990.
"There was no ability to move the ball with any degree of consistency," said Cowher. "You can not continue to ask a team to hold a team to 10 points and say that's what we have to do to win football games."
Pittsburgh (7-8), which erased a 13-point first-half deficit to grab a 24-22 lead early in the fourth quarter, will miss the postseason for the first time in Cowher's seven years as coach.
"It feels great that it's Pittsburgh," said Cincinnati cornerback Artrell Hawkins, a native of western Pennsylvania who sealed the win with an interception with 17 seconds remaining. "It feels even better since I'm from around here and we beat them twice."
The last time the Steelers failed to make the playoffs was 1991, Chuck Noll's last year as coach. Pittsburgh will try to salvage a .500 season next Monday night at Jacksonville.
"We can't get it done," said Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis. "It's sad that we're not giving our fans anything to cheer about. There's plenty of blame to go around. Until everyone accepts that, we're not going to get any better."
The Steelers' last chance faded when Hawkins picked off Mike Tomczak inside the Bengals 20. Tomczak took over for Pittsburgh in the second half following another woeful performance by Kordell Stewart, who was repeatedly booed by the Pittsburgh fans after completing just 5-of-13 passes for 30 yards.
"It was pretty much the same old thing, a lot of breakdowns," said Stewart. "Cincinnati just came out and played well and they responded. Things just weren't happening the way we would like it."
Facing a 4th-and-2 with under four minutes remaining, Cowher elected to punt. After giving up two first downs, Pittsburgh forced a punt, taking over at its 20 with no timeouts and just 56 seconds remaining.
Tomczak, who was 5-of-11 for 77 yards, completed a 19-yard pass to Will Blackwell, but then threw two incompletions. His third-down pass was picked off and the Bengals (3-12) only needed one play to run out the clock.
Relying on their defense and special teams, the Steelers rallied from a 13-0 deficit to take a 24-22 lead on Norm Johnson's 21-yard field goal with 10:17 remaining. But Pittsburgh could not overcome another disappointing effort by Stewart, who started after his heated exchange with Cowher last week, and suffered its fourth straight loss.
Cowher did not think the events of last week had any bearing on Stewart's poor performance against the Bengals.
"I don't think it has anything to do with the preparation," said Cowher. "We just have absolutely no confidence with our football team. We've had so many opportunities, but we just can't make a play to get a spark."
The Steelers also could not contain Cincinnati quarterback Jeff Blake, who completed 20-of-36 for 367 yards with a touchdown and interception. Blake engineered a crucial 12-play, 62-yard drive that consumered over five minutes and put the Bengals ahead for good.
"Jeff Blake won the game." noted Cincinnati coach Bruce Coslet. "What else can you say. Our defense played great. I think Pittsburgh had 200 yards total offense (actually, the Steelers amassed 211 yards). Our defense shut them out the first half."
Blake tossed a 20-yard pass to Darnay Scott, then connected with Stepfret Williams for a nine-yard gain that gave Cincinnati a first down at the Pittsburgh 37.
Blake kept the game-winning drive alive with a critical six-yard run on fourth-and-1 from the 31, before the Bengals moved inside the 10 on an interference call against Carnell Lake, who returned an interception 15 yards for a Pittsburgh TD in the first half.
"We had fun," said Blake. "We went out and moved the ball. We had some turnovers and made some bad plays, but we also made enough good plays to overcome it."
Pittsburgh took a 21-16 lead on Bettis' four-yard TD run with 7:05 remaining in the third quarter, the Steelers' first offensive touchdown since Thanksgiving Day against Detroit.
The lead changed hands four times in the second half as the Bengals responded quickly, grabbing a 22-21 lead on Blake's 61-yard TD pass to Scott just 19 seconds later.
Bettis rushed for 104 yards on 21 carries and went over 1,000 yards for the third straight season.
Stewart's woes reached a new low when linebacker Reinard Wilson knocked the ball out of the quarterback's hands early in the second quarter. Safety Sam Shade took the fumble out of midair and rumbled 55 yards to give the Bengals a 10-0 lead with 10:08 left in the first half.
"The ball rolled around for what seemed like forever," said Shade. "I grabbed it and just ran. You can kind of put Kordell in Blake's situation. We've seen what he can do and we're sure he'll do it again."
After the Bengals extended their lead to 13-0 on Pelfrey's 37-yard field goal, Pittsburgh defense provided a spark as Lake's return pulled the Steelers within 13-7 with 1:42 remaining in the half.
Blake then executed the two-minute offense to near perfection as Pelfrey booted a 43-yard field goal on the final play of the half.
Pittsburgh scored a special teams touchdown on the opening kickoff of the second half. David Dunn fumbled after a 54-yard return but cornerback Chris Oldham scooped it up and raced 36 yards to cut Cincinnati's lead to 16-14.
Cincinnati's Brandon Bennett rushed for 63 yards on 25 carries in place of Corey Dillon, who missed the contest with back spasms and the flu.
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