A win over the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this season put the Cincinnati Bengals on the national radar as legitimate playoff contenders. Another victory over the defending Super Bowl champs will put them in the driver’s seat to win the AFC North for the first time in four years.
The Bengals look to sweep the regular-season series over the Steelers for the first time in more than a decade when they visit Heinz Field on Sunday.
Cincinnati has won six of seven, including a 23-20 upset of Pittsburgh on Sept. 27 on a touchdown pass from Carson Palmer(notes) to Andre Caldwell(notes) with 14 seconds remaining. The Steelers haven’t lost since their visit to Cincinnati, and are tied with the Bengals for the division lead with 6-2 records.
While a Bengals win this weekend would give them a sweep of the season series for the first time since 1998, and put them in control of the North, Palmer tried to keep this matchup in perspective.
“It’s a game,” he said. “We’re not going to look too far ahead of who’s on the schedule, who’s left, worry about playoff implications, worry about home-field advantage. We don’t need to be thinking about any of those things. … They’re in a must-win situation. We feel we’re in a must-win situation.”
Pittsburgh has regrouped by winning five in a row since that loss - aided by the return of Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu(notes), who missed the earlier matchup with the Bengals due to a knee injury. The Steelers are 4-0 this season with Polamalu, including a 28-10 win at Denver on Monday night in which he intercepted his third pass.
“To me he’s one of the best players in the game, and when you add that guy you’re only going to get better,” Palmer said.
Palmer and the Bengals are looking to improve to 5-0 against division rivals after beating Baltimore 17-7 last Sunday. Palmer threw for 224 yards and one touchdown while Cedric Benson(notes) recorded his fourth 100-yard rushing game of the season, finishing with 117 yards and a score on 21 carries.
The defense, meanwhile, gave up a season-low 215 yards total offense.
“Today was a statement game,” said receiver Chad Ochocinco(notes), who caught five passes for 66 yards in his fourth straight game with at least five receptions. “I want every game to be a statement game.”
Benson is making a loud statement that he’s become one of the game’s top running backs. After rushing for 747 yards and two touchdowns last season, Benson is one of only two backs - along with Tennessee’s Chris Johnson - to average more than 100 yards per game in 2009. Benson has scored in each of the last four games, averaging 117.5 yards in that span.
“We used to be an air-it-out, explosive offense, and when you play in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Baltimore and Cincinnati, you get to those December games and you can’t throw the ball 40 times,” Palmer said. “You have to be able to run the ball. We are at a good point now.”
Pittsburgh is coming off a short week following the victory in Denver, where the Steelers scored the game’s final 21 points after trailing 10-7 in the third quarter. Ben Roethlisberger(notes) threw three TD passes, two of them to Hines Ward(notes).
“We have guys that are designed to be great,” coach Mike Tomlin said of his defensive unit, which has forced nine turnovers in three games since Polamalu’s return. “They play hard every time they come out, regardless of their opponent or story line if you will. Those guys are committed to being great every time they step in the stadium.”
The Steelers defense will be seeking redemption for its last performance against the Bengals. They failed to record a takeaway in that contest, and allowed 100 rushing yards for one of only two times this season.
Pittsburgh had won the previous five games in the series against Cincinnati, including a 27-10 home victory last season.