Rare Bengals game

Pittsburgh has rebounded nicely since its 1-2 start, winning five straight to capture a share of the AFC North lead at 6-2 and setting up a rare showdown Sunday between the Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field.

The surprising Bengals can deliver a blow to Pittsburgh's quest to win consecutive Super Bowls. A Bengals win would give Cincinnati a 5-0 record vs. AFC North teams, including its first sweep of the series against the Steelers since 1998.

This will be only the fourth time in 30 seasons that both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will bring winning records to a meeting in the second half of the season. The Bengals have won the previous three, all in Pittsburgh, the last time in 2005 in the 12th game of the season. Cincinnati won 38-31 and went on to win the division. However, Pittsburgh beat the Bengals in Cincinnati in the first playoff game and went on to win the Super Bowl.

The loser of Sunday's game would still have an inside track for one of the two AFC wild-card playoff berths, but that's not what's on their mind this week.

The AFC North was supposed to come down to Pittsburgh or Baltimore again, but the Bengals have crashed the party.

"It's really not surprising that they're a player in the game," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "They got their franchise quarterback back. They're gaining continuity on defense. They picked up Cedric Benson, who ran very well over the second half of last year. He's back. So it's not surprising that they're in the mix."

The Steelers outplayed the Bengals in the third game of the season, at Cincinnati, but came away with a 23-20 loss on Carson Palmer's touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell with 14 seconds left, wiping out an 11-point fourth-quarter Steelers lead. Pittsburgh had 373 yards and limited Cincinnati to 273 in that game.

Pittsburgh also played without All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, who has since returned, and halfback Rashard Mendenhall, who was benched on offense in that game by Tomlin. The coach said he did so because the young back had not paid attention to details in practice. Since that benching, Mendenhall has started five straight games, all Steelers victories, and averaged 105.6 yards per game in that stretch.

"It was not punitive in nature," Tomlin said. "You have to educate. He's a young guy, he's got a lot of talent and I think so far, so good. That was the intent -- more detailed preparation, more attention to detail. For a young guy, not only does it prepare him but it instills confidence in him from coaches and from other people in the huddle."

The Steelers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher since 2007 and their No. 1 run defense will be put to the test by Cedric Benson, the NFL's second-leading rusher. Benson ran for 76 yards on 16 carries in their first meeting this season.

"He's an inspired, motivated runner, and it shows up on tape," Tomlin said.

SERIES HISTORY: 79th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series 47-31, including a 26-13 record in Pittsburgh since the series began in 1970. The Steelers won their only meeting in the postseason. The Bengals, who beat the Steelers 23-20 in the third game of the season, have not swept the twice-annual series since 1998.

NOTES

* Safety Ryan Clark said if it had been up to him, he would have played Monday night in Denver. Coach Mike Tomlin decided to make him in active for the game because Clark, who has sickle cell trait, had major health issues after playing there two years ago.

"I would have played," Clark said. "That just means he's smarter than I am because obviously I'm standing here right now."

* QB Ben Roethlisberger spoke publicly for the first time since July about the sexual assault civil lawsuit filed against him this summer. He said nothing new but his teammates again came to his defense when asked about it.

"As an elite quarterback as he is and as much as he means to the sports world, to have that kind of tarnish on his name is hurtful," tackle Willie Colon said. "I know as much as he (says) it doesn't, I think it does hurt him."

* The Steelers wore hats under their helmets at practice Wednesday to honor military veterans on Veterans' Day.

* DE Aaron Smith, placed on injured reserve after the season's fifth game when it was discovered his right rotator cuff was torn, had surgery last week.

BY THE NUMBERS: 12 -- Number of prime-time games coach Mike Tomlin's Steelers have won consecutively after they lost his first game in prime-time as their coach.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "If we proceed and continue to grow and get better, it's a game that we can point back to when the dust settles in March or February." -- Mike Tomlin on his team's 28-10 victory in Denver.

PLAYER NOTES

* S Tyrone Carter, named AFC defensive player of the week, will return to backup duty Sunday as Ryan Clark resumes his position at free safety.

* Roethlisberger knocked down another team record when he recorded his 32nd game with a 100 passer rating, one more than Terry Bradshaw.

* Mendenhall, with 573 yards rushing, could become only the second Steelers' first-round draft pick to gain 1,000 yards. The other was Franco Harris.

* TE Heath Miller, who has 43 receptions, remains on pace to obliterate his career high (48) and the team record for tight ends (63).

* DE Brett Keisel's two sacks Monday gives him three, more than he's had since he set his career high with 5.5 in 2005.

GAME PLAN: The Steelers had a much easier time throwing in Cincinnati than they did running when they met Sept. 27 and feel they can do that again on Sunday. The Bengals are No. 2 vs. rush, No. 25 vs. pass. On defense, they will try to keep Cedric Benson under 100 yards for the second time this season and hope their pass rush can get to Carson Palmer, who threw for only 173 yards against them in the third game, attempting 37 passes and keeping everything short.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Benson vs. Steelers' top-ranked run defense. Steelers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 30 games, including postseason.

Mendenhall vs. Bengals' No. 2-ranked run defense. Mendenhall, benched in Cincinnati on Sept. 27, has 528 yards in the past five games.

Steelers CB Ike Taylor vs. Bengals WR Chad Ochocinco. Taylor has a history of limiting Ochocinco, who caught five passes for 54 yard in Week 3.

INJURY IMPACT: DE Travis Kirschke (calf) did not practice Wednesday after missing Monday's game. Nick Eason started Monday with a heavy dose of rookie Ziggy Hood. LB Lawrence Timmons (ankle) returned to practice for the first time since his Oct. 25 injury. Keyaron Fox started at ILB Monday.


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