Best Race in NFL Comes Down Stretch

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals last played only 21 days ago. Today, the two AFC North Division contenders are wrapping up their regular-season series at Heinz Field.

PITTSBURGH – No other division but the AFC North has two teams tied for first place.

No other division but the AFC North has three teams within a game of first place.

It's the best division race in football, and after hosting the 7-4 Cincinnati Bengals today the 8-3 Pittsburgh Steelers will be done with the heavy lifting.

The Steelers beat the Bengals only two games – or 21 days – ago. Yet, the Bengals are not the same team, or so says Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who pointed specifically at the development of the relationship between Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and tight end Jermaine Gresham.

"It's developed even more so since we've played them because A.J. Green missed some time," Tomlin said. "Gresham is a high-round guy, a high-pedigree guy. He's really taken off here in recent weeks. We expect that to continue now that they have Green back in the lineup. That makes them doubly dangerous."

Green, with 44 catches for 745 yards, is on pace to break Cris Collinsworth's rookie team records. And Gresham, with 37 catches for 370 yards, is on pace to better his numbers from last season when he led AFC rookies.

The Bengals also found a new slot receiver, Andrew Hawkins, 21 days ago against the Steelers. That day he matched his career receiving total with 5 catches for 56 yards. The former CFL player (and 25-year-old NFL rookie) has caught 11 passes for 130 yards in the last 21 days and has become quite the complement to the Green-Gresham duo. Tomlin called Hawkins – the brother of former Bengals DB Artrell Hawkins – a "Wes Welker-type guy" at his weekly press conference.

"We knew he was a player from the time that we worked him out in January and February," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. "I worked him out here at our stadium, and then I decided to just hold on it for a bit. Then he went off to St. Louis, and they ended up signing him right away, and then they waived him, and we got him back, and he has done that ever since the first day he set foot in our training camp. He has been an explosive guy. He has taken every opportunity that has been given to him and just blew the roof off of it. Whether it is special teams, offense, or I turn him around and play him in nickel-corner all of the time. So he is a good football player and he does a lot of things, and when you have been on the street, and bounced around and did the things like he does, and come from good stock in his bother, you are going to do everything that is asked of you."

The Bengals are emerging into a potent offense, but the defense suffered a blow when top cornerback Leon Hall went down for the season against the Steelers. He's been replaced by Adam "Pacman" Jones, the notorious 28-year-old journeyman from West Virginia University.

"The last time Pac was in here he had a good interception against us when he was with the Cowboys," said Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "Pac's one of those guys who'll jump some routes. He's a veteran, savvy player. They still have some experience back there. They've been hurt the last couple weeks with some deep balls but I think Zim [defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer] will have that group ready.

They know what their challenge is and we know what ours is." For the Bengals, who are 0-1 against both first-place teams, the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, the game is a must-win for their playoff hopes. But the Steelers are 0-2 against the Ravens, making today's game a must-win for them if they hope to win the division championship. And the Steelers are healthy. Their entire starting lineup – with the possible exception of IR'd LDE Aaron Smith – will be on the field together for the first time this season.

"We're on the cusp of having a pretty good year," said Hines Ward. "We're 8-3. Right now, the playoffs have started for us."

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