PITTSBURGH (AP) — Finally after 40 years of being pushed around and dominated by the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cincinnati Bengals refused to be bullied any more.
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The Bengals beat the Steelers at their own game in their own stadium, relying on a defense that smothered Ben Roethlisberger and the Super Bowl champions by holding them to four field goals, and one big special teams play for an 18-12 victory Sunday that put them in control of the AFC North.
Shayne Graham kicked four field goals in the second half even as the Bengals (7-2) failed to convert opportunity after opportunity to take control. Bernard Scott’s 96-yard kickoff return in the first quarter proved pivotal as Cincinnati, despite playing the second half without ace running back Cedric Benson and failing to convert on the extra point after Scott’s score, followed up a 23-20 win over the Steelers (6-3) on Sept. 27.
By sweeping the season series for the first time since 1998, the Bengals effectively lead the division by two games because they own the tiebreaker and, for the first time in their history, a 5-0 division record.
For the Steelers, it was a frustrating defeat after they had won five in a row and were coming off key wins over the Vikings and Broncos.
Now, the Bengals — a lowly 4-11-1 last season — are in first place in a division where the Steelers and Ravens played for the AFC championship last season. Cincinnati — yes, Cincinnati — went 4-0 against those teams this season. And the Steelers, despite a soft schedule the rest of the way, now face an uphill climb against a rival that has won seven of eight and is 4-0 on the road.
The Bengals, who had won only 13 previous times in Pittsburgh since they moved into the same division in 1970, have spent so many years getting manhandled by the Steelers, they tried doing the same thing. And it worked.
They didn’t let the Steelers convert any of their final 10 third-down plays, pressured Roethlisberger so much that he passed for only 174 yards on 40 attempts and bottled up Rashard Mendenhall (36 yards, 13 carries) a week after he ran for 155 yards in Denver.
Most of all, the Bengals didn’t allow the Steelers’ defense to dictate to them, despite gaining only 218 yards and scoring its only touchdown on Scott’s kickoff return — the third allowed by Pittsburgh in its last three home games.
The Bengals kept letting Pittsburgh get off the hook, only to spend four minutes-plus driving for Graham’s 43-yard field goal with 1:56 remaining. Graham hit earlier from the 23, 32 and 32.
The Steelers still had a chance, but Roethlisberger threw incomplete on four consecutive downs from the 33, and it was over. The Bengals danced and pranced off the Heinz Field turf where the Steelers had won their last 10.
It was close, but then it was supposed to be.
Each team played most of the game without a key player — Steelers safety Troy Polamalu aggravated a left knee injury that kept him out for four games and didn’t play after Cincinnati’s opening possession. Benson, the NFL’s No. 2 rusher coming in, hurt a hip during the second quarter and didn’t play in the second half, with Scott managing only 33 yards on 13 carries for him.
Chad Ochocinco (2 catches, 29 yards) and Carson Palmer also couldn’t get going — he was 18 of 30 for 178 yards — but Palmer didn’t turn the ball over. The Steelers did in a game in which the two teams combined for only 444 yards, a good day for some offenses.
Frostee Rucker returned Roethlisberger’s interception to the Steelers 14 on Pittsburgh’s opening drive of the second half, but, settling into a familiar script, Cincinnati settled for Graham’s 23-yarder.
With the Bengals effectively controlling the Steelers’ running game and getting enough pressure — mostly by Jonathan Fanene — to keep Roethlisberger from mounting any sustained drives, they drove to the 14 again later in third. Again, they came away only with a Graham field goal.
Jeff Reed later tied it early in the fourth at 12 with his fourth field goal, but the Bengals would have led if holder Kevin Huber hadn’t mishandled the snap on the extra point following Scott’s kickoff return. Cincinnati also missed an extra point attempt in its 23-20 win over the Steelers on Sept. 27.