Pittsburgh has rebounded nicely since its 1-2 start, winning five straight to capture a share of the AFC North lead at 6-2 and setting up a rare showdown Sunday between the Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field.
The surprising Bengals can deliver a blow to Pittsburgh's quest to win consecutive Super Bowls. A Bengals win would give Cincinnati a 5-0 record vs. AFC North teams, including its first sweep of the series against the Steelers since 1998.
This will be only the fourth time in 30 seasons that both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will bring winning records to a meeting in the second half of the season. The Bengals have won the previous three, all in Pittsburgh, the last time in 2005 in the 12th game of the season. Cincinnati won 38-31 and went on to win the division. However, Pittsburgh beat the Bengals in Cincinnati in the first playoff game and went on to win the Super Bowl.
The loser of Sunday's game would still have an inside track for one of the two AFC wild-card playoff berths, but that's not what's on their mind this week.
The AFC North was supposed to come down to Pittsburgh or Baltimore again, but the Bengals have crashed the party.
"It's really not surprising that they're a player in the game," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "They got their franchise quarterback back. They're gaining continuity on defense. They picked up Cedric Benson, who ran very well over the second half of last year. He's back. So it's not surprising that they're in the mix."
The Steelers outplayed the Bengals in the third game of the season, at Cincinnati, but came away with a 23-20 loss on Carson Palmer's touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell with 14 seconds left, wiping out an 11-point fourth-quarter Steelers lead. Pittsburgh had 373 yards and limited Cincinnati to 273 in that game.
Pittsburgh also played without All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, who has since returned, and halfback
"It was not punitive in nature," Tomlin said. "You have to educate. He's a young guy, he's got a lot of talent and I think so far, so good. That was the intent -- more detailed preparation, more attention to detail. For a young guy, not only does it prepare him but it instills confidence in him from coaches and from other people in the huddle."
The Steelers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher since 2007 and their No. 1 run defense will be put to the test by Cedric Benson, the NFL's second-leading rusher. Benson ran for 76 yards on 16 carries in their first meeting this season.
"He's an inspired, motivated runner, and it shows up on tape," Tomlin said.
79th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series 47-31, including a 26-13 record in Pittsburgh since the series began in 1970. The Steelers won their only meeting in the postseason. The Bengals, who beat the Steelers 23-20 in the third game of the season, have not swept the twice-annual series since 1998.
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