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(Reuters) - The Pittsburgh Steelers secured a last-ditch 18-16 victory over bitter rivals the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday, coming out on top of an ill-tempered AFC Wild Card game to extend the home team's long wait for a playoff win.
The contest seemed to be safely in Cincinnati's hands after they fought back from a 15-0 deficit with 16 fourth-quarter points and seized control of the ball with less than two minutes remaining on a Vontaze Burfict interception.
However, as the Bengals endeavored to run out the clock and secure a first playoff victory since 1991, running back Jeremy Hill fumbled after a hit by linebacker Ryan Shazier and the Steelers recovered deep in their own territory.
Inspired by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's return to the game after he was earlier withdrawn with a shoulder injury following a bone-jarring sack, Pittsburgh marched down the field.
In the dying seconds, the Steelers benefited from a pair of personal foul calls, a ferocious late hit to the head by Burfict on an incomplete pass to Antonio Brown and another 15-yard foul on cornerback Adam Jones in the ensuing melee.
That set up a game-winning, 35-yard field goal by Chris Boswell with 14 seconds left.
"It's an emotional football game. Emotional football players, emotional playoffs, everything," Roethlisberger told reporters.
"I'm just so proud of everybody, players stepped up."
When asked about his shoulder, the quarterback said: "We got a win, that's all that matters."
The loss left Bengals coach Marvin Lewis with an 0-7 record in the playoffs, an NFL record for futility.
The Steelers were the second visiting team to win on the opening day of the National Football League playoffs following a 30-0 rout by the Kansas City Chiefs over the Houston Texans that set the AFC match-ups for round two next weekend.
Pittsburgh, 10-6 in the regular season, will travel to Denver to play AFC West champion the Denver Broncos (12-4), while Kansas City (11-5) visit AFC East champions the New England Patriots (12-4).
The bruising battle between AFC North foes was marked by numerous personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct calls, players threatening one another after crushing hits and the Cincinnati crowd throwing debris on the field in protest.
Pittsburgh surged 15-0 ahead in the rain-soaked defensive struggle with the game's outstanding offensive play -- a remarkable third-quarter touchdown catch by Martavis Bryant.
Bryant pinned the pass from Roethlisberger behind his thigh as he somersaulted into the corner of the end zone to help the Steelers build on three Boswell field goals.
However, the Bengals battled back after Burfict put Roethlisberger out of commission with a thundering sack.
A 42-yard pass interference penalty on an AJ McCarron bomb thrown for A.J. Green put the Bengals on the four-yard line and Jeremy Hill ran it in for a two-yard touchdown to make it 15-7 early in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers struggled to move the ball with backup Landry Jones taking the snaps and the Bengals moved into position for a 30-yard field goal by Mike Nugent to make it 15-10 with 5:17 left, before McCarron's TD toss to Green put them ahead.
Then came Cincinnati's stunning turnover as they attempted to run out the clock.
"Our defense played their butts off and made an interception that pretty much sewed up the game," Hill said. "I let the fans down, and the coach down and let my team mates down. It's on me."
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by John O'Brien