PITTSBURGH -- Maybe it wasn't a concession speech, even if it sounded like one. The Bengals spent most of the last 20 seasons chasing Pittsburgh, and now it's the other way around, and the Steelers realize it's a decidedly uphill climb.
"They're clearly the best team in the division," safety Ryan Clark said after the Bengals beat the Steelers 18-12 on Sunday to take control of the AFC North. "I'd give my left arm to play them again."
Who could have possibly envisioned the Super Bowl champions saying that about a rival they've largely dominated and, at times, intimidated since the 1980s, especially with seven games left in the season?
The Bengals (7-2) pulled it off by beating the Steelers (6-3) at their own game in their own stadium, where Pittsburgh had won its last 10. They smothered Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh's running game, yielded only four field goals by Jeff Reed and converted a tight-as-it-gets game's only big play, Bernard Scott's 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
"That's probably the most grinding football game I ever experienced," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.
The Steelers were without star safety Troy Polamalu for all but the opening series as he aggravated the left knee injury that previously sidelined him for four games. He underwent an MRI exam, but there was no immediate word about his status.
Whether they have Polamalu or not the rest of the way, the Steelers realize they're in big trouble.
By sweeping the season series for the first time since 1998, the Bengals effectively lead Pittsburgh by two games because they own the tiebreaker and, for the first time in their history, a 5-0 division record. Usually by now they're playing for next year, only to discover it may have arrived.
"This is a breath of fresh air to be at this point of the season and to be playing for a reason," Chad Ochocinco said. "It feels really good."
Especially when the Bengals almost appeared to be waiting for the something bad to happen, settling for four field goals by Shayne Graham after deep drive after deep drive didn't produce a single touchdown.
They also played the second half without ace running back Cedric Benson, yet still found a way to follow up their 23-20 win over the Steelers on Sept. 27 -- and in a city where they had won only 13 times in 40 years, with many of those wins during the 1980s.
"It's hard to really describe the feeling, when you've been through so many times when you're leaving this stadium and you're holding your head low from losing the game," Graham said.
The Bengals, a lowly 4-11-1 last season, swept both Baltimore and Pittsburgh a season after those teams played for the AFC title. They've won seven of eight and are 4-0 on the road.
"In the past, we would lose games like this," center Kyle Cook said.
For the Steelers, it was a frustrating defeat after they had won five in a row, scoring at least 27 points in each. By winning, they would have led the division and controlled the momentum; now, Clark concedes, they may be playing for a wild card unless the Bengals collapse.
"We still got to find a way to get to the playoffs," cornerback Deshea Townsend. "We have enough veteran guys to get to that point. We're chasing Cincinnati, and hopefully we get to see them again."
The Bengals were so Steelers-like in a game in which the teams' combined offense was 444 yards, it was almost as if they were copying from defensive zenmaster Dick LeBeau's playbook. They didn't let the Steelers convert any of their final 10 third-down plays, pressured Roethlisberger into going 20 of 40 for only 174 yards with four sacks and bottled up Rashard Mendenhall (36 yards, 13 carries) a week after he ran for 155 yards in Denver.
Most of all, the Bengals didn't let the Steelers' defense dictate to them, despite gaining only 218 yards. They even got away with messing up an extra point attempt for the second time in as many games against Pittsburgh.
The drive that mattered most stretched over four minutes late in the game and ended with Graham's 43-yard field goal. He hit earlier from the 23, 32 and 32.
The Steelers got the ball back with slightly less than two minutes to play, but Roethlisberger threw incomplete on four consecutive downs from the 33, and it was over.
"There was just something missing all day, I don't know what it was," Roethlisberger said. "Something was weird about the day, I don't know if it was the [mid-60s] weather in November. We just didn't make the plays we normally make."
Ochocinco (2 catches, 29 yards) and Carson Palmer (18-of-30 for 178 yards) never got going, but there were no Bengals turnovers. Pittsburgh had one, and it mattered.
Frostee Rucker returned Roethlisberger's interception to the Steelers 14 on Pittsburgh's opening drive of the second half, but, settling into a familiar script, the Bengals came away only with Graham's field goal.
Only this time -- and this was the change -- they didn't settle for losing.
It was only the fourth time since 1970 the teams met when both had winning records during the second half of the season. The Bengals have won all four (2009, 2005, 1990, 1981), each in Pittsburgh. ... Steelers coach Mike Tomlin lost for the first time in eight home games against a division team. ... Benson had 22 yards on seven carries before leaving.
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