CINCINNATI (AP) - The previous time the Steelers came to town, they knocked the Bengals out of the playoffs with a stunning last-minute rally.
They’re headed back with a chance to inflict another loss that will leave a lasting mark.
The AFC North leaders would unseat the defending champions with a win on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Steelers (8-5) can maintain control of the division by winning in a place that has a homey feel for them.
They’ve won their past three in Cincinnati and six of their past seven, including the 18-16 victory in the opening round of the playoffs last January.
Penalties on Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones moved Pittsburgh in range for the winning field goal in the final seconds.
Their return trip to Cincinnati (5-7-1) was originally scheduled for prime time, given the animosity involved from the playoff game.
Burfict’s hit to Antonio Brown’s head left the receiver with a concussion, set up Pittsburgh’s winning kick, and led to a three-game suspension from the NFL. Burfict sat out the Steelers’ 24-16 win at Heinz Field on Sept. 18.
The game was switched to a daytime slot with the Bengals fading from contention, but the stakes are high for the Steelers. Plus, the hard feelings remain.
“We love playing against Pittsburgh, so we’re eager for the week and the task at hand,” Jones said. “It’s always different when we play those guys. Just one of those games that you mark on your calendar every year. I know I do, those two games.”
Pittsburgh has moved to the front of the pack in the division by winning four straight, with Le’Veon Bell rushing for at least 100 yards each game. He set a club record with 236 yards rushing last Sunday in a win over the Bills.
Bell also sat out the earlier meeting this season while serving an NFL suspension.
Thousands of Steelers fans are expected to make the five-hour drive and fill the stadium with their Terrible Towels, making the Steelers feel right at home.
“Typical one down there - crazy, riled up,” said Ben Roethlisberger, who is 11-2 at Paul Brown Stadium. “It’s the AFC North. It’s us coming to town. Maybe not as crazy as it would have been if it was that initial 8:30 p.m. (kickoff), but I still expect the fans to come out for it and for it to be a typical Steelers-Bengals game.”
Some things to watch on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium:
ON A TEAR: The Steelers are reveling in what coach Mike Tomlin calls “December Football.” Pittsburgh is 13-2 over its past 15 games in December, a stretch that propelled the Steelers to playoff berths in 2014 and 2015. If they can do it again this season, the AFC North leaders will reach the postseason for the third straight year, something they haven’t yet done during Tomlin’s 10-year tenure.
“December football is all about running the ball and playing good defense, and we’ve done that,” tackle Marcus Gilbert said.
AGELESS WONDER: Pittsburgh’s resurgent pass rush has been led by 38-year-old linebacker James Harrison, who retired briefly in 2014 after spending a forgettable season with the Bengals before returning to the Steelers. Harrison’s five sacks lead the team and he played every defensive snap in last week’s victory over Buffalo.
“James is a marvel,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.
GETTING THEIR KICKS: The Bengals changed kickers during the week, releasing Mike Nugent after a string of missed extra points and field goals. They claimed Randy Bullock off waivers a day after he was released by the Steelers, who brought him in for a temporary stint while Chris Boswell recovered from an abdominal strain.
STOPPING AB: The Bengals focused on containing Brown during their game in Pittsburgh earlier this season, and it worked. He was held to four catches for 39 yards. Brown hasn’t scored a touchdown in his past three games against Cincinnati. He needs one TD catch from Roethlisberger to make the two of them the Steelers’ all-time duo, moving ahead of Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann, who also had 49 touchdown plays.
KEEPING COOL: Burfict has avoided the personal fouls that marred his career until this season, a sign that he’s finally taking his coaches’ and teammates’ advice to heart. He has delivered some pushes after the whistle, but nothing egregious enough to warrant a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. His demeanor will be tested against the Steelers, who will try to get him riled.
“I would, too,” Jones said. “He’ll be all right.”
AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
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