Nothing like the flip of a calendar to get the Pittsburgh Steelers' attention.
The defending AFC champions like to save their best football for December and beyond. Maybe it's why their surprisingly easy 35-7 win over reeling Cincinnati on Sunday shouldn't be so surprising.
"Finally," wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "We always make it harder than it has to be. Today, we came out with a lot of emotion and a lot of energy. The guys just wanted to win. We knew what we had to do. It's getting closer to the playoffs and it's time for us to get better."
Wallace caught two touchdown passes from Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall ran for a pair of scores and Pittsburgh (9-3) won for the seventh time in eight games behind the most prolific quarter in franchise history.
The Steelers exploded for four touchdowns in a 12-minute span in the second, burying the Bengals (7-5) under a barrage of big plays and turnovers.
"We're in it now," linebacker James Farrior said. "Right now is our time. ... We already started our playoffs."
It certainly looked that way as Pittsburgh swept the season series from Cincinnati for the second straight year to end any realistic hopes the Bengals have of winning the AFC North.
"It's tough," said Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green, who caught an 11-yard touchdown pass but also committed a false start penalty that wiped out another score. "We shot ourselves in the foot sometimes. Being the veteran team they are, they capitalized on everything we did."
It's what the Steelers do this time of year.
Pittsburgh has been a mixed bag at times this season, often playing to the level of the competition, regardless of who it is.
The same team that handled New England with ease six weeks ago is the same one that barely escaped woeful Kansas City with a win last Sunday night, raising concerns about Roethlisberger's fractured right thumb, the running game and a defense nursing injuries to safety Troy Polamalu (concussion) and LaMarr Woodley (hamstring).
There were no anxious final moments against the Bengals, not after the Steelers put together the kind of all-around performance they've lacked at times this year against lesser competition.
Mendenhall scored on runs of 3 and 5 yards, Roethlisberger turned a Cincinnati fumble into a 12-yard strike to Wallace and Antonio Brown returned a punt 60 yards for a score that gave the Steelers a 28-7 halftime lead in a game that didn't feel that close.
"They beat us in every area today — beat us on offense, beat us on defense, beat us in special teams," Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said.
Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton passed for just 135 yards and was sacked three times by Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison. Dalton spent the fourth quarter on the bench as a preventive measure with the game out of reach.
"We can't let this hurt us," Dalton said. "We can't let this affect the next four."
Blocking it out might be tough.
Lewis had done little to downplay the game's importance, practically admitting his team's hopes for an outside shot at a divisional title would all but disappear if the surprising Bengals couldn't earn a split with the Steelers.
The Bengals hung tough in a 24-17 loss to Pittsburgh three weeks ago, the kind of gritty performance that gave them hope they could earn a split with their division rivals and stay alive in their quest for a second division title in three seasons.
Thrust into the role of contender, the Bengals wilted in the spotlight, reverting to the kind of mistakes they've avoided while rebuilding on the fly behind the tandem of Dalton and Green. Cincinnati committed 10 penalties for 109 yards and offered little resistance to lose for the third time in four games.
Roethlisberger, who aggravated his injured thumb in practice during the week, overcame a slow start to complete 15 of 23 passes for 176 yards and the two scores to Wallace. His final completion, a 9-yard toss to tight end David Johnson in the fourth quarter, was the 2,026th of his career, breaking Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw's club record.
"It's obviously an awesome honor," Roethlisberger said. "Anytime you break a guy like that's record, it's a great thing."
It was that kind of day for Pittsburgh. Wide receiver Hines Ward became the 19th player in NFL history to eclipse 12,000 career yards, while Harrison joined Chad Brown and Mike Merriweather as the only players in team history to record at least two three-sack games in the same season.
"You have to start playing good, all-around football," Ward said. "Today, we displayed that."
The Bengals did not.
Cincinnati came in with an NFL-record three double-digit second half rallies, but not this time. Playing with a lead, Pittsburgh's defense teed off on Dalton and sent fans heading to the exits early.
"It's just embarrassing," Cincinnati defensive back Chris Crocker said. "You don't feel good at all. When they're beating you so bad that their fans leave, that's just a bad feeling."
Notes: The Steelers have swept the Bengals seven times in the last 11 seasons. ... Woodley started for the first time since getting hurt against New England on Oct. 30, but left in the first half after "tweaking" his left hamstring according to Pittsburgh Mike Tomlin. ... Pittsburgh hosts Cleveland on Thursday night, while the Bengals host Houston on Sunday.