PITTSBURGH (AP) — There were parts of the Steelers’ playoff game that seemed surreal.
Their forced fumble that provided one last chance. Their drive in the rain that featured the franchise quarterback shot-putting passes he normally slings. The ugly meltdown by an opponent known for self-destruction.
The bandage on running back Fitzgerald Toussaint’s nose, the wrap around linebacker Ryan Shazier’s leg and the uncertain status of Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown going forward offered proof it was not.
Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers are still around, heading to Denver for next weekend’s AFC divisional playoff after a borderline ridiculous 18-16 wild-card win over Cincinnati on Saturday night. Yet it came at a heavy cost.
Roethlisberger’s right shoulder is aching and Brown is dealing with a concussion after absorbing a hit to the head from Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict that set off a bizarre chain of events that ended with Chris Boswell’s winning field goal with 14 seconds left.
The availability of the cornerstones of the NFL’s third-ranked offense for a rematch with the AFC West champion Broncos is unclear.
Sure, it’s less than ideal. Still, the Steelers figure it beats the alternative.
“I wasn’t ready to go home yet,” said Shazier, who got the ball loose from Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill with less than 90 seconds left to provide the offense just enough time. “I felt like nobody was.”
While the Bengals are left with months to think about how they let a game in which they had the lead and the ball in Pittsburgh territory with less than two minutes to go somehow slip away, Pittsburgh has a week to prepare for Peyton Manning and the AFC’s top seed.
The Steelers won 34-27 at Heinz Field on Dec. 20, but that was against Brock Osweiler and with Roethlisberger and Brown lighting up the league’s best secondary.
Osweiler has given way to the NFL’s all-time passing leader in the playoffs while the Steelers could be forced to give Landry Jones his third career start at a place that hasn’t always been kind to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers have won just twice in their past eight trips to Denver, including a 29-23 overtime defeat at the hands of Tim Tebow in the 2011 wild-card round.
Not that it mattered on Sunday. Roethlisberger will be evaluated this week and Brown’s teammates insisted the All-Pro was “fine” after appearing to be briefly knocked out after getting drilled by Burfict with 22 seconds to play.
Jones, who played well at times while filling in for Roethlisberger during the regular season, but threw a seemingly season-ending pick in the fourth quarter against the Bengals on Saturday night, said he’ll stick to his normal routine — which he does regardless of how Roethlisberger fells.
“I don’t know what the doctors have said,” Jones said. “I’m going to prepare and get ready to go for Denver.”
And the Steelers — whoever is in under center — will head to Denver with momentum. Pittsburgh’s defense played perhaps its best three quarters of the season before letting the Bengals put together 16 points in the fourth quarter, a rally fueled in part by Roethlisberger’s absence.
Still, when the Steelers needed to get a stop, Shazier managed to rip the ball free of Hill’s left arm.
“When it popped out, at first I was trying to scoop and score,” Shazier said. “But I mishandled the ball. Then we just needed to get the ball back to the offense and let them do the scoring.”
Something Roethlisberger — his normally potent right arm limited largely to screens and flares into the flat — did with a little help from the Bengals and a lot of help from Toussaint. The second-year running back caught a pair of passes on the final drive, including a 10-yard flip that gave the Steelers a first down.
“For the most part I wanted to catch it to get Ben’s trust,” Toussaint said. “I felt like I stepped up in that matter.”
So did Jordan Todman. The two combined for 123 yards rushing while playing in place of injured starter DeAngelo Williams, whose injured right foot could be ready by next weekend. If Williams can go, he will. If not, Pittsburgh’s running game proved it can still be plenty effective.
“I felt like we were pretty good, pretty consistent,” Todman said. “We had a little rhythm.”
One the Steelers hope will carry over. They’ve gotten the breaks they’ve needed in each of the past two weeks. While nobody is ready to call them a team of destiny, they’re still playing. That’s qualification number one.
“It seems like sometimes in the playoffs that the ball bounces the right ways for teams that make it all the way,” Jones said. “Lucky enough for us, it bounced the right way.”
All the way to Denver.