A rarity: Bengals-Steelers really is a big game

Nov 14, 2009 - 5:02 AM By ALAN ROBINSON AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH(AP) -- They've had running backs named Ickey and Rocky, quarterbacks named Bubby and Boomer. A Brown founded the Bengals and an ex-Brown named Chuck Noll forged the Steelers' transformation from a doormat into a dynasty.

The Bengals-Steelers rivalry will be played Sunday for the 80th time in 40 seasons - including one playoff game and one season in which they met only a single time - and what a series it's been. And hasn't been.

It's been colorful, filled with famous names (Paul Brown, Art and Dan Rooney, Noll and Shula), ever-changing names (Chad Ochocinco nee Johnson), long names (Ben Roethlisberger and T.J. Houshmandzadeh) and big names (Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Anthony Munoz). Strange nicknames too, like Wicky Wacky (Sam Wyche) and Mad Dog (Dwight White).

The franchises once played in stadiums that not only looked alike and sounded alike, Riverfront Stadium and Three Rivers Stadium, but were located alongside the Ohio River. They've shared coaches (Dick LeBeau, Ken Anderson) and the same division since 1970.

What they've almost never shared is first place so deep into a season. For only the third time since the rivalry began, the Bengals (6-2) and Steelers (6-2) will play with first place on the line during the second half of a season - and one previous instance, 1990, deserves an asterisk because the Oilers also were tied.

"Every game is big, but this game is real big," Steelers defensive end Nick Eason said.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin apparently agrees, because he referred to the game as being big nearly 20 times during a 20-minute press conference.

The series usually is so one-sided, with the Steelers controlling the 1970s, 1990s and this decade and the Bengals dominating in the 1980s, that the games often are mere stepping stones to bigger ones. Not this time.

With both teams playing relatively soft schedules, Sunday's winner will have the chance to be in control the rest of the way.

If the Steelers win their sixth in a row, they'll lead by one game and will own the momentum. Should the Bengals repeat their last-minute 23-20 win over Pittsburgh on Sept. 27, they'll effectively lead by two games because they'll own the tiebreaker based on sweeping the season series.

A single NFL game rarely results in such a three-game swing, so both teams know what Sunday means - possibly, the season, though the loser will remain in the playoff race.

No doubt Ickey Woods and Rocky Bleier, Bubby Brister and Boomer Esiason all would have loved games like this one.

"It all comes down to a showdown in Pittsburgh, and we'll be ready," Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said. "They'll be ready. It's going to be a great game."

More than that, Ochocinco said.

"This will be an event, not a football game," he said.

Cincinnati won the last such meaningful regular-season game in 2005, beating the Steelers 38-31 in Pittsburgh on Dec. 4 and winning the division, but Pittsburgh won a playoff rematch a month later and went on to win the Super Bowl.

These Bengals are convinced they're much better equipped than that team to close the deal. They have a quarterback who has proven he can win important games (Palmer); a game-changing receiver in Ochocinco; one of the NFL's best running backs in Cedric Benson; and a defense that has repeatedly shut down drives by making eight interceptions in four games.

While the Bengals believe it's finally their time, winning in Pittsburgh likely won't be easy for a franchise that has succeeded there only 13 times in 39 years.

"We can't wait to go to Pittsburgh and prove the world wrong again," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "We're ready to step up to the plate and show everybody about Cincinnati, that we're a real team."

The Bengals' biggest problem might be that the Steelers finally are the team they were expected to be.

The Super Bowl champions haven't lost in five games since that Cincinnati defeat, and they will be coming off successive wins over teams that were unbeaten only a few weeks ago, the Vikings (27-17) and Broncos (28-10).

Roethlisberger is fifth in yards passing and fourth in passer rating and, for all of the Bengals' interceptions, he'll be taking on a secondary that allows an average of 241.6 yards per game, the NFL's eighth highest. While the Steelers are more pass-reliant than ever, Rashard Mendenhall has twice gained 150-plus yards in five games.

Also, Pittsburgh didn't have playmaking safety Troy Polamalu during that first game, when the Bengals once trailed by 11 points before driving 71 yards to win on Palmer's 4-yard TD pass to Andre Caldwell with 14 seconds remaining. With Polamalu back, the Steelers have scored three touchdowns on defense in their last two games.

The Steelers talked all week about the importance of not permitting Benson, who ran for 189 and 117 yards in his last two games, to halt their streak of 30 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher.

"He's been the big difference in them," Eason said.

Steelers safety Ryan Clark believes it is to both teams' advantage to have so much to play for Sunday.

"That's what you want," he said. "I don't want to go into the game with people saying, `Oh, so and so is struggling' or `Oh, the quarterback threw five picks and, oh, they can't run it.' No, come in here flying high, feeling good about yourself, because that's the way we feel. It's going to be a good time."

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