- The Washington Times - Monday, November 16, 2009

PITTSBURGH | Maybe it wasn’t a concession speech, even if it sounded like one. The Bengals spent most of the last 20 seasons chasing Pittsburgh, and now it’s the other way around, and the Steelers realize it’s a decidedly uphill climb.

“They’re clearly the best team in the division,” safety Ryan Clark said after the Bengals beat the Steelers 18-12 on Sunday to take control of the AFC North. “I’d give my left arm to play them again.”

Who could have possibly envisioned the defending Super Bowl champions saying that about a rival they’ve largely dominated and, at times, intimidated since the 1980s, especially with seven games left in the season?

The Bengals (7-2) pulled it off by beating the Steelers (6-3) at their own game in their own stadium, where Pittsburgh had won its last 10. They smothered Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh’s running game, yielded only four field goals by Jeff Reed and converted the game’s only big play, Bernard Scott’s 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

“That’s probably the most grinding football game I ever experienced,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.

The Steelers were without star safety Troy Polamalu for all but the opening series as he aggravated the left knee injury that previously sidelined him for four games. He underwent an MRI exam, but there was no immediate word about his status.

Even if they have Polamalu the rest of the way, the Steelers realize they’re in big trouble.

By sweeping the season series for the first time since 1998, the Bengals effectively lead Pittsburgh by two games because they own the tiebreaker and, for the first time in their history, a 5-0 division record. Usually by now they’re playing for next year, only to discover it may have arrived.

“This is a breath of fresh air to be at this point of the season and to be playing for a reason,” Chad Ochocinco said. “It feels really good.”

Especially when the Bengals almost appeared to be waiting for the something bad to happen, settling for four field goals by Shayne Graham after deep drive after deep drive didn’t produce a single touchdown.

They also played the second half without ace running back Cedric Benson, yet still found a way to follow up their 23-20 win over the Steelers on Sept. 27 - and in a city where they had won only 13 times in 40 years, with many of those wins during the 1980s.

“It’s hard to really describe the feeling, when you’ve been through so many times when you’re leaving this stadium and you’re holding your head low from losing the game,” Graham said.

The Bengals, a lowly 4-11-1 last season, swept both Baltimore and Pittsburgh a season after those teams played for the AFC title. They’ve won seven of eight and are 4-0 on the road.

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