Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown during the Steelers 33-20 win over the Bengals (Greg Lynch/Dayton Daily News)
CINCINNATI -- It seemed so innocent at first, but it could mean so much. Trailing by a touchdown with 5:06 remaining in the first quarter, Andy Dalton tried a strange shovel pass to halfback Giovani Bernard from the Pittsburgh 4-yard line. Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt read the play and picked off the throw. While trying to tackle Tuitt, Dalton fractured his right thumb. We don't know whether he'll play another down this season, but if he does, it won't be soon.
Dalton's absence all but sealed Cincy's fate, and that one play might have the biggest impact of any in the 2015 season to date, especially if the Steelers keep this up.
At 8-5, the Steelers are still a potential playoff team -- and you don't want to play the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger is on fire, the receiving corps is virtually unstoppable, and halfback DeAngelo Williams found the fountain of youth in Pittsburgh.
"We can be as dangerous as can be, especially the offense and the way the defense is coming along strong," Antonio Brown said. "We can be the team to reckon with."
The Dalton play brought back memories of the 2005 playoffs. The Bengals won the division. The Steelers were the wild-card team. On the first play of the game, Steelers defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen crashed into Carson Palmer's leg and tore Palmer's ACL and MCL. With Palmer out for the playoffs, the Steelers won the game and eventually beat the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
Minus Dalton, the circumstances feel similar, and if Pittsburgh can beat the Broncos next week, watch out. The Steelers finish against Baltimore and Cleveland. With the Seahawks, they might be the most feared teams in the playoffs, even though each might be a wild card.
Dalton was the headline in the Steelers' 33-20 win over Cincinnati, but Roethlisberger is the story. He's hot. Even though the offensive players thought they left points on the field, the Steelers scored 33 against the league's No. 1 defense in points allowed -- 26 if you drop an interception return for a score by William Gay. It was the fifth straight week the Steelers have scored at least 30 points.
"This was a great team win," Roethlisberger said. "Offensively, we thought we could have been better. We got down there and kicked some field goals. We got some penalties and got behind the chains, but we converted third downs a lot early. We want to score touchdowns."
Big Ben completed 30 of 39 passes for 282 yards. Surprisingly, he didn't get a touchdown, but he was sharp. The Steelers average 28.9 points when Roethlisberger is on the field, compared to 21 when he isn't. The offense averages 7.1 yards per play with Big Ben and 5.5 without him. Red zone efficiency goes from 45.5 percent to 61.3 with Roethlisberger. Third-down conversions improve from 22 percent to 48.3 with him. The list goes on and on. If he is upright, this could be the NFL's best offense.
"Ben is playing like himself," tight end Heath Miller said. "Obviously, he's feeling good right now. We're going to keep riding him."
It's fun to watch how Roethlisberger involves his pass-catchers. Even though the Bengals concentrated extra coverage on Antonio Brown, Brown caught seven passes for 87 yards. The Bengals tried to prevent Martavis Bryant from going deep, but he still caught seven passes and stretched the field.
"They did a very good job disguising and mixing up coverage with safeties starting high and coming down and starting low and going back," Roethlisberger said. "So your first read is not always going to be there. That's when the middle and some late checkdown stuff opens up. That's where every guy needs to be ready to make a play."
No Steelers player did that better than Miller, who caught 10 passes for 66 yards. One of the reasons Roethlisberger can be so good is he has Miller as his insurance policy. Miller can run short routes in the middle. Often, he can break off routes and catch quick tosses when Roethlisberger scrambles.
"Ben and I played together for a long time," Miller said. "That helps. I am always on a route, but when he scrambles, I know just try to get open, and most of the time he will find you."
Ben is finding everybody at this point.
Pittsburgh isn't yet a lock to make the playoffs, but the NFL needs to be on guard. The Steelers are the team you don't want to run into.