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Bengals seeking to gain ground on division-leading Steelers

The Cincinnati Bengals certainly haven't made their - or less heart-pounding -- by posting five quarter comebacks this season.

Unfortunately for their division title hopes, one of those wasn't against the AFC North co-leading Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bengals try to stay in the mix for a division championship and avoid a fourth straight setback to the Steelers this Sunday at Heinz Field.

After missing out on the playoffs a year ago with a 4-12 record, the Bengals came into this season with low expectations mainly due to the fact that they were starting a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton.

However, Dalton and fellow rookie wide receiver A.J. Green have proven to be fast learners and Cincinnati won six of its first eight games before losing back-to-back contests, at home to Pittsburgh and at Baltimore. Those losses are key, as the Bengals currently trail both the Steelers and Ravens by one game for the top spot in the AFC North.

The Bengals put themselves in an early hole against the Steelers back on Nov. 13, falling behind by two touchdowns before battling back to tie the game at 17-17. Pittsburgh, though, countered with a rushing touchdown from Rashard Mendenhall with 1:55 to play and Steelers cornerback William Gay later picked off Dalton to seal the 24-17 win.

With two losses to the division leaders, that makes this weekend's game versus the Steelers pretty close to a must-win for Marvin Lewis' team if it hopes to claim the AFC North title. They close out the regular season at home versus the Ravens on Jan. 1.

"This is a big football game for us, no doubt about it," said Lewis. "If we want to have an opportunity to win the AFC North, this is an important game for us. We can't fall another game behind at this point."

Following a 31-24 loss in Baltimore on Nov. 20, Cincinnati regained its magic touch this past weekend against visiting Cleveland, battling back from a 10- point halftime deficit to record a 23-20 victory. Kicker Mike Nugent notched the game-winning points, hitting a 26-yard-field goal with 38 seconds left. That kick came after Cleveland's Phil Dawson missed a 55-yard try on the other end.

"We're just finding ways to win," said Dalton, who helped set up Nugent's field goal with a 51-yard pass to a leaping Green.

Cincinnati, which currently occupies the sixth playoff seed in the AFC, is 4-2 on the road this year and needs to win this game and a Dec. 18 matchup at St. Louis to match the best away mark in team history.

The Steelers had a week off following their win over the Bengals and flashed a little rust last Sunday night in a defensive-minded 13-9 victory over Kansas City. Pittsburgh did score the game's lone touchdown, a pass from Ben Roethlisberger to tight end Weslye Saunders, and have won two straight and six of seven to keep pace in the division.

Like their win over the Bengals, the Steelers clinched the victory against the Chiefs on Keenan Lewis' interception with less than a minute to play.

"It's tough because it's kind of a mixed feeling-type thing," Roethlisberger said. "You're happy to get the win, but you're disappointed at the way your offense played. The defense stepped up huge for us [last week]."

Pittsburgh forced four turnovers in the game despite losing safety Troy Polamalu to a head injury in the first quarter. He did not return to the game, but the team said Polamalu did not suffer a concussion. The 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year could play this weekend, but head coach Mike Tomlin said he must first pass a series of tests.

"Troy Polamalu hasn't had any concussion symptoms since we got back here," Pittsburgh's coach said on Monday. "All things are positive in terms of his potential participation this week. Obviously we will continue to err on the side of caution."

Sunday's victory marked the fourth time in Tomlin's five years as Pittsburgh's head coach that the Steelers have started 8-3. A win this Sunday would make Tomlin only the sixth head coach in NFL history to win at least since nine games in his first five seasons since the 1970 merger. The others include former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher as well as George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Chuck Knox and Mike Sherman.

SERIES HISTORY

The Steelers took a 50-32 lead in their overall regular-season series with Cincinnati following the above-mentioned seven-point victory in Week 10, and have won three straight and eight of the last 10 bouts between the teams. Pittsburgh, which also recorded a 23-7 triumph over the Bengals at Heinz Field last December, will be aiming to sweep its home-and-home set with Cincinnati for the fourth time in five years on Sunday, with the Bengals' only positive results over that stretch both coming in 2009. Cincinnati posted a 23-20 home decision as well as an 18-12 verdict in the Steel City that year, its first win at Heinz Field since 2006.

Pittsburgh also prevailed in its lone postseason encounter with Cincinnati, topping the then-AFC North champion Bengals by a 31-17 count on the road in a 2005 AFC First-Round Playoff en route to an eventual Super Bowl title.

Marvin Lewis is 5-13 all-time against Pittsburgh, for whom he served as a linebackers coach from 1992 through 1995. Tomlin owns a 7-2 mark versus both Cincinnati and Lewis during his tenure as the Steelers' head coach.

WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL

Green (44 receptions, 6 TD) returned from a one-game absence due to a knee injury suffered on his touchdown grab versus the Steelers to give the Bengals their rookie one-two punch back last week. He ended with just three catches, but totaled 110 yards and leads all rookies with 745 receiving yards as he continues to make big plays. Dalton (2509 passing yards, 16 TD, 12 INT) threw for 270 yards versus the Browns, and his touchdown pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham (37 receptions, 5 TD) broke Greg Cook's club rookie record for that category. Dalton was sacked twice by the Browns, but the Bengals have still allowed just 17 quarterback takedowns on the season. Gresham led the way with five receptions for 68 yards a week ago and wide receiver Andre Caldwell (35 receptions, 3 TD) added three catches for 24 yards. Running back Cedric Benson (740 rushing yards, 5 TD) also had a solid game for Cincinnati's 18th-ranked offense, running for 106 yards with a score on 21 carries despite a leg injury that briefly sidelined him before halftime. Benson also caught four balls for 24 yards.

Once again, the Steelers should provide quite a challenge for the Bengals offense. Pittsburgh ranks second in total defense (277.5 ypg), is third against the pass and is allowing 17.1 points per game to rank fourth in the league. The Steelers held the Chiefs to a mere 252 yards of offense last week, including just 90 on the ground. Pittsburgh has held its opponents to under 100 net rushing yards in four of its last five games and gave up 23 points or less for a 10th straight outing. Both Keenan Lewis (31 tackles) and safety Ryan Mundy (30 tackles) logged their first career interceptions last Sunday night, while cornerback Ike Taylor (29 tackles, 1 INT) grabbed the 12th of his career. Mundy also led the team with 10 tackles after stepping in for Polamalu (64 tackles, 1 sack) and linebacker Lawrence Timmons (54 tackles, 1 INT) added seven. Defensive end Brett Keisel (31 tackles, 3 sacks) recovered a fumbled snap in the victory. Pittsburgh did come up with just one sack, by linebacker Jason Worilds (15 tackles, 1 sack) as he started a third straight game in place of the injured LaMarr Woodley (36 tackles, 9 sacks, 1 INT). Woodley is questionable to return this week from a hamstring pull.

WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL

Pittsburgh's offense struggled to post just 290 yards against the Chiefs, well below its season average of 374.5 per game. Roethlisberger (3070 passing yards, 17 TD, 10 INT) completed 21 of his 31 pass attempts, but totaled only 193 yards while getting sacked once and intercepted one time. Wide receivers Antonio Brown (48 receptions, 1 TD) and Hines Ward (31 receptions, 2 TD) ended with four catches each, with Brown leading all receivers with 81 yards. Big- play threat Mike Wallace (55 receptions, 6 TD) was held to only two catches for 17 yards by Kansas City, while Saunders made the first touchdown grab of his career. Starting tight end Heath Miller (39 receptions, 2 TD) was held to one 20-yard catch. The Steelers rank 18th in rushing yards and nearly reached their season average versus the Chiefs by posting 108 yards on 28 carries. Starter Mendenhall (574 rushing yards, 6 TD) had 57 of them on 17 carries, while Isaac Redman (267 rushing yards, 1 TD) added a few bursts with 22 yards on three carries.

The Bengals also field a stingy defensive unit, though the Browns were able to find some holes last week. Cincinnati is ranked eighth in points allowed (19.5 per game) and fifth against the rush (92.7 ypg), but Cleveland posted 20 points while racking up 134 yards on the ground, the most the Bengals have allowed this season. Cincinnati did hold Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy to 151 yards passing and sacked him twice, upping its season total to 28. Safety Reggie Nelson (60 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) also came up with an interception that was the direct result of pressure on the quarterback. Tackle Geno Atkins (32 tackles, 6.5 sacks) had a sack to increase his total that leads all NFL interior lineman, while end Robert Geathers (24 tackles, 2.5 sacks) also got to the quarterback. Linebackers Rey Maualuga (59 tackles) and Thomas Howard (63 tackles) were all over the field against Cleveland, logging 10 and nine tackles, respectively. Cornerback Adam Jones started opposite Nate Clements (41 tackles, 1 INT) last week as the secondary continues to play minus Leon Hall (32 tackles, 2 INT), who is out for the season with an Achilles injury. End Carlos Dunlap (15 tackles, 3 sacks) sat out for the second time in three games last Sunday due to a hamstring issue and is questionable for this weekend.

KEYS TO THE GAME

One matchup to watch is Green against Polamalu, assuming the Pittsburgh safety is ready to play. Green was held to one catch versus the Steelers, but it was a 36-yard scoring grab in which he outfought Polamalu and another Steeler. Green did suffer his knee injury on the play, but last week showed he is still running full speed.

Pittsburgh's defense has always lived up to is reputation, but the defending AFC champs had trouble creating turnovers early on. Pittsburgh logged just six over its first nine games, but has six in the past two. The Steelers recorded three interceptions a week ago for the first time since Jan. 2 of last season.

Dalton has thrown 12 interceptions on the season, with five of those coming against the Ravens and Steelers. If the Bengals are going to reach the playoffs and have success, the young quarterback must perform against the better defenses.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The Steelers have hit their stride after a bit of a slow start, having lost to only one team not named the Baltimore Ravens. The Bengals, meanwhile, have beaten the teams they are supposed to be beating, but have struggled against fellow playoff contenders. A loss to Pittsburgh this weekend in no way ends Cincinnati's playoff hopes, but would certainly leave the club at a mental disadvantage come January. The Bengals definitely need a win to keep their chances alive at the AFC North title, but the Steelers should damper those hopes on their home field.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 28, Bengals 17