CINCINNATI (AP)—Not yet, Bengals. Not quite yet.
In front of a record crowd roaring for a changing of the guard, the upstart Bengals got put in their place by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who proved Sunday that they’re still the team to beat in the AFC North.
Ben Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes in his return from a knee injury, and the Steelers used their proven formula—run the ball and play defense—to grind out a 27-13 victory.
The Steelers (4-2) have a knack for winning tough games in tough places. They dominated the second half in front of a Cincinnati-record crowd of 66,104, and Pittsburgh set a franchise record of its own with a 10th straight road victory.
“They were 5-1, and everybody was on the Cincinnati Bengals bandwagon,” Ward said. “For us to come in here and win the way we did, it goes a long way for our organization.”
For the first time in their stadium’s six-year history, the Bengals (5-2) had the fans on their side for a home game against the Steelers. There was more orange than yellow in the crowd that turned out on a raw, rainy day—the kind the Steelers love to dominate with defense and runs.
Willie Parker’s 37-yard touchdown run highlighted Pittsburgh’s 221 yards on the ground. Parker ran for 131 yards overall, and injury-slowed Jerome Bettis even got in a few licks on a defense that gives up 4.9 yards per try.
“We knew coming in that if we wanted to control this division, this was the game,” said Bettis, who had 56 yards.
Ward’s 4-yard touchdown catch on the final play of the third quarter made it 24-6 and gave him a chance to rub it in with a Riverdance-style celebration, poking fun at Johnson’s antics.
“It was spur of the moment,” Ward said. “Chad and I have become good friends. He said he had one (dance) for us if he ever got in. I said, ‘Why not try?’ I didn’t know how to do it. You could see I was a bad Riverdancer.”
Johnson got one chance to dance, but his opening-drive touchdown was overturned on review. The Steelers’ defense took it from there, making the Bengals look far inferior—though they steadfastly refused to acknowledge it.
“I think we’re better than them,” said receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who led the Bengals with seven catches. “They won the game and I’m sure they feel like they’re better than us, but I don’t feel like it.”
Palmer had tied Peyton Manning’s NFL record of nine consecutive games with a passer rating of 100. The last time Palmer struggled was in his last game against the Steelers, a 19-14 loss in Cincinnati last season.
It happened again. Pittsburgh had two interceptions in the third quarter, setting up a decisive 10-point spurt. Palmer hadn’t thrown an interception in 20 quarters and 169 attempts.
To make matters worse, Palmer got flattened by his former Southern California roommate, safety Troy Polamalu, as he tried to make a tackle on one interception return. Palmer finished 21-of-36 for 227 yards.
“It wasn’t anything in particular they did,” said Palmer, who had a measly 53.8 passer rating for the game. “I just didn’t play well enough to win. I gave them two turnovers. When you play a championship team, you can’t do that.”
Roethlisberger didn’t have to do much on Sunday. He was 9-of-14 for 93 yards and threw his first interception of the season. The running game did the rest.
The Bengals’ biggest game since 1990—the last time they had a winning record—reminded their fans of their dismal past. They had their chance to make a statement, and bungled it.
They drove down the field after the opening kickoff, and Johnson did a giddy high-step after his diving catch in the back of the end zone was initially ruled a 16-yard touchdown. The Steelers challenged the call, and referee Tony Corrente overturned it, concluding that Johnson got only one foot down before his hand landed out of bounds.
The Bengals’ next long drive ended in a 26-yard field goal by Graham, hardly what they needed. When Bettis started bowling them over, they knew they’d missed their chance.
The Steelers held Rudi Johnson to 65 yards, extending their streak to 18 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher. Johnson was the last to do it. … Pittsburgh has won six of the last seven and nine of the last 11 against Cincinnati. … Roethlisberger was the only NFL starter without an interception. He improved to 9-0 as a starter on the road. … Bengals first-round pick LB David Pollack hurt his left knee and left the game for an examination in the second half. He and the team declined to reveal the results. “It doesn’t feel good,” he said.