PITTSBURGH -- The Cincinnati Bengals aren't supposed to win like this. Not against this team or against these odds. Not at this time of the season or in so big a game.
Somehow they did, and the franchise that could barely win a game of any kind for 12 seasons now has the kind of season-defining victory that can lead to championships.
Jon Kitna's third touchdown pass, an 18-yarder in the rear of the end zone to Matt Schobel with 13 seconds left, finished a last-minute drive that carried the Bengals past the rival Pittsburgh Steelers 24-20 Sunday.
The Bengals (7-5) not only won their fourth in a row and sixth in seven games to set up a first-place showdown next week in Baltimore, they all but eliminated the Steelers (4-8). Pittsburgh won six of the last nine titles in the AFC North or Central. The Steelers are one loss away from their third losing season in the last five.
"In years past, we didn't win the tough games," running back Corey Dillon said. "Now we're winning them. As long as I've been here, December was just December, it doesn't mean too much. This is different."
Tommy Maddox, 28-of-42 for 313 yards, gave Pittsburgh its first lead at 20-17 with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward with 1:05 remaining. The Steelers rallied from a 14-3 deficit behind Jerome Bettis' 1-yard touchdown run on a 75-play drive and Jeff Reed's 39-yard field goal.
But after Reed's short kickoff into a strong wind and Brandon Bennett's 27-yard return gave Cincinnati the ball at its 48, Kitna - who has 18 touchdown passes and only one interception in Cincinnati's seven victories - got the Bengals in the end zone in four plays.
Asked the Bengals' mindset with half the field to cover in barely a minute, coach Marvin Lewis said, "Let's go win the game."
Darned if they didn't. Kitna hit Peter Warrick for 18 yards and Bennett ran 16 yards. After an incompletion, Kitna found Schobel for the Bengals' biggest touchdown since they last won a division in 1990.
Back then, the Bengals used an early December 16-12 win in Pittsburgh as a springboard to that title.
"I said the division had to go through Pittsburgh," said Ward, who made 13 catches for 149 yards. "They came into Pittsburgh and stole a big victory."
Lewis intends to do the same thing next week in Baltimore, even if he wouldn't guarantee it like Chad Johnson did before the Bengals upset Kansas City.
"We're going to win three in a row on the road," said Lewis, whose team was coming off a victory at San Diego. "That's not a prediction, that's our goal."
Kitna was 18-of-32 for 271 yards and three touchdowns, including first-half scores of 51 yards to Kelley Washington and 4 to Chad Johnson, who made six catches for 117 yards. Cornerback Chad Scott was in coverage on both plays.
"This was a reflection of our season: up and down, up and down, and then at the end, a letdown," Bettis said. "It's tough to deal with."
Until the decisive final drive, the Bengals were scoreless in the second half except for Shayne Graham's 44-yard field goal that made it 17-13.
The Steelers were in position to score just before the end of the first half, but backup quarterback Charlie Batch fumbled on second-and-goal from the 10.
Batch, playing only because Maddox left for three plays with a left leg injury, was attempting to throw a screen pass. The ball slipped out of his hand and Cincinnati's John Thornton fell on it. Referee Bernie Kukar ruled Batch's arm was not going forward - making it a lateral that could be recovered, not a pass.
The Bengals immediately ran a kneel-down play to end the half, causing coach Bill Cowher to confront Kukar and ask why the play wasn't reviewed. Cowher couldn't challenge the call because less than two minutes remained in the half.
"You would think they would at least look at the play," Cowher said.
Told the replay official was Dale Hamer, formerly the head linesman on Kukar's crew, Cowher said, "I guess that's why he's retired."
- Bettis' 62 yards rushing gave him 12,010 in his career. He needs 65 yards to overtake Thurman Thomas for ninth place.
- Ward (13 catches for 149 yards) had X-rays on his back and ribs, but doesn't think he was seriously hurt.
- The Bengals' four-game winning streak is their first in a season since 1989. They also won three at the end of the 1996 season and their 1997 opener.
- The Steelers had won nine of their last 10 division games and had won 17 of 23 from Cincinnati since 1992.
The Associated Press News Service
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