It happened early in the fourth quarter. It appeared that Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow had just connected with Tee Higgins on a 20-yard touchdown pass, but the officials ruled the Bengals receiver’s knee had hit the ground a foot short of the goal line.
Cincinnati challenged the calln and in the few minutes it took for official to go through their various instant replay angles, an interesting debate took place on the Bengals sideline.
If the call would stand it would mean Cincinnati would have a first down and four tries to get those last few inches. With a touchdown pretty much a certainty, running back Joe Mixon, who had his way all day with the reeling Steelers, huddled with his offensive linemen and said he asked an important question:
“I said, ‘What y’all want to do?’ and Big Spain looks at me and says, ‘Man, let’s all do something!’”
Quinton Spain is the Bengals’ massive 6-foot-4 ,330 pound guard, but at this moment he was feeling pretty light on his feet.
“Big Spain said, ‘Let’s do the two-step.’” Mixon said. “And I was like, ‘OK, let’s do The Temptations. ‘We ended up choreographing it real quick.”
So when the officials upheld the call, the Bengals trotted back onto the field and Mixon took the handoff and burst the one yard for the TD that put Cincinnati up 41-3 over the Steelers.
And the next thing you know there are the Bengals linemen and Mixon doing their best Motown moves.
“I looked to my left and there’s Jonah (6-foot-5, 305 pound Jonah Williams),” Mixon said. “You wouldn’t expect him doing the two-step. And I had the mic.”
He said he didn’t know what song they were reimagining, but admitted:
“It was a hell of deal.”
And Sunday was a hell of a deal.
The Bengals ended up routing their longtime nemesis, 41-10. It’s Cincinnati’s second largest margin of victory over the Steelers in franchise history.
Until last December, the Steelers had owned the Bengals over the past couple of decades. They would trounce them in the regular season and twice knocked them out of the playoffs and once knocked their quarterback (Carson Palmer) out of the game with a serious injury.
But with last December’s stunning Monday Night Football upset of Pittsburgh and now a two-game sweep this season, the Bengals have beaten the Steelers three straight – something that last happened way back in 1990.
“To beat those guys – for me twice, for some of the other guys here three straight – it’s a big changing of the guard,” said Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton.
And he should know.
He played for Pittsburgh the past four seasons and only jumped to the Bengals – for four years and $24 million – when salary cap-stressed Steelers felt they couldn’t meet his demands.
And he made his old team pay anyway when he made the play that Bengals coach Zac Taylor said “catapulted” Cincinnati to victory.
In the final minute of the first half – with Cincinnati leading 24-3 – Pittsburgh’s Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted a Burrow pass.
As Fitzpatrick was making his return, Burrow – like the rest of the Bengals – was suddenly in a defensive mode. And that’s when the Steelers wrecking ball of a linebacker, T.J. Watt, executed what he called a hard block on the Bengals’ franchise player.
Others might call it a big-time wrestling take down.
The roughhousing caused some Bengals players to rush to Burrow’s side and that resulted in a quick-tempered scrum that eventually was broken up.
And that’s when Hilton provided the perfect comeback
If you’re going to do that to our quarterback, here’s what we’ll do to yours.
On the very next Pittsburgh play, he sensed what was unfolding and picked off Ben Roethlisberger’s pass, returning it 24 yards for a touchdown that gave the Bengals the 31-3 lead at the half.
“That’s the first pick six in my whole football career – I mean peewee, high school, college, my first four years in the league, that’s my first one,” he gushed.
He was so excited in the end zone that he dropped the football when he was quickly mobbed by his teammates.
“I was like, ‘Where’s the ball?’” he said with a grin. “But I got a game ball, so it all worked out.”
Taylor said that play gave the Bengals the momentum to finish off the Steelers.
In fact, on Roethlisberger’s next two possessions, he was sacked.
Coming into this game, the 39-year-old quarterback was 15-3 at Paul Brown Stadium.
Sunday he looked like an aging quarterback – who got no help from receivers who kept dropping the ball -- and Burrow looked like the wondrous young pro he is. He completed 20 of 24 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown.
Mixon rushed for a career-high 165 yards and two scores.
“This team is playing with a ton of confidence,” Taylor said.
The team is 7-4 coming down the stretch in December and in the thick of the playoff picture.
As Burrow said when pressed about sweeping the Steelers this season: ”We’ve got higher aspirations than just beating the Steelers.”
And no one was happier after the game than Hilton:
“To do this against these guys in a big division game, it couldn’t be any sweeter. It’s the best feeling in the world now.”
He might have not known what song they were dancing too on the field, but after the game one Temptations refrain seemed obvious:
“I’m doing fine, up here on Cloud Nine!”