AFC North Showdown

The Steelers hope to avenge an earlier loss to the Bengals and take over sole possession of first place in the division.

PITTSBURGH – Bill Cowher predicted last January that the Cincinnati Bengals would win the AFC North Division this season. Ben Roethlisberger carried that comment with him until June.

"I heard Bill Cowher made a Bengals prediction," Roethlisberger told a Post-Gazette reporter who was visiting his football camp. "So I guess that's the team to beat in the division."

Either Roethlisberger forgot, or he was being coy this week when asked about his former coach's prediction. When the prediction was repeated, Roethlisberger said of Cowher: "He's a mastermind. Obviously he knew something we didn't."

Roethlisberger and the Steelers can put a dagger into the prediction by beating the Bengals today at Heinz Field. Both teams are 6-2 and tied for first place in the AFC North. The Bengals won the first meeting by three points with a touchdown pass with 14 seconds remaining.

It would appear to be an even matchup, except that Roethlisberger and his 3-receiver circus are going up against the NFL's 24th-ranked pass defense. Last time, the Steelers found enough holes in the Bengals' pass defense to take a 20-9 lead into the fourth quarter.

That's probably the correct game plan, but Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians isn't so sure.

"They're playing very solid," Arians said of the Bengals' defense. "Their front – outstanding, second against the run. The linebackers – those young linebackers have really improved their defense. And the corners – they're playing shutdown football and they're allowing their safeties to get more active in the run game. That's always a ticket to success when the corners can play one-on-one and allow you to play an eight-man front. It's tough to run the ball."

Cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph are the critical pieces for the Bengals today. Hall, a first-round pick in 2007, was a popular victim that first season but has 12 career interceptions after picking off three in the last two games. He leads the Bengals in passes defensed and has also forced two fumbles.

Joseph, a first-round pick in 2006, was the Steelers' primary target in the first game this season. They had great success, although Joseph did return an interception for a touchdown on a missed hot read by receiver Santonio Holmes.

"Yeah, that was a good game for us," Arians said. "But (Joseph) has played extremely well lately. Both corners look like they're playing with a ton of confidence right now."

The Bengals corners have played particularly well against the Baltimore Ravens. In two recent games, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had a combined passer rating of 56.0. And, as Arians pointed out, good one-on-one corner play has allowed the Bengals to rise to No. 2 in the league in stopping the run, trailing only the Steelers.

Like a true AFC North contender, the Bengals not only can stop the run, they can run it themselves. Cedric Benson has 837 yards to rank second in the NFL in rushing. His 76 rush yards on 16 carries is the most by any back against the Steelers this season.

But if the Bengals are to fulfill Cowher's prophesy, they'll have to pass on the Steelers and their 14th-ranked pass defense, and they'll have to do it without playmaking No. 3 wide receiver Chris Henry, who broke his forearm last week against the Ravens and is out for the season.

Before the Henry left the game, he'd helped the Bengals to seven first downs and two touchdowns in the first quarter. He was injured making a catch on the Bengals' first play of the second quarter. The Bengals kicked a field goal on that possession, but didn't score the rest of the game and had only nine more first downs after Henry left.

Andre Caldwell becomes the No. 3 receiver with starters Chad Ochocinco and Laveranues Coles. The Bengals will also be without their best pass-rusher, Antwan Odom, who's on injured reserve. Linebacker Keith Rivers and guard Evan Mathis are doubtful.

The Steelers, on the other hand, will welcome the return of safety Ryan Clark and linebacker Lawrence Timmons for this AFC North showdown.

"We want to win every game," said Roethlisberger. "But when you're playing in the division there's a little extra motivation."

There's also that little extra motivation from mastermind Cowher, who, even in retirement, has again found a way to rally the Steelers.

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