PITTSBURGH - Finally, after 15 years of being one of the worst teams in pro sports, the Bengals proved they belong among the best.
The Bengals went into Pittsburgh in December, stood up to the team they rarely beat and all but secured their first division championship in 15 years, riding Carson Palmer's three touchdown passes and a defense that forced four turnovers to an all-important victory.
Rudi Johnson ran for Cincinnati's final two scores, one after a 94-yard Tab Perry kickoff return and the other after Ben Roethlisberger's third and most costly interception, as the Bengals seized a two-game lead in the AFC North with four games to play.
"It's a game we had to win to control the division," Palmer said. "You can say all you want about how we had to beat Pittsburgh, we just needed to win this game."
The Steelers got a gutty effort from Roethlisberger (29-of-41, 386 yards, three touchdowns) despite a possible fractured right thumb, but lost their third in a row and are in danger of missing the playoffs a year after going 15-1. That's how pivotal this game was - if the Steelers had won, they would have been in the division lead by virtue of tiebreakers, but now they face an uphill climb to get in as a wild card.
The Bengals came into their biggest game in 15 years with the division lead despite losing to Pittsburgh at home 27-13 on Oct.23. And no team has beaten up on the Bengals like the Steelers, who were 20-7 against them under coach Bill Cowher.
"But they're not the Bengals of old," Steelers guard Alan Faneca said. "Since (coach) Marvin Lewis came in, they've been a different team. They're starting to become a lot better."
Roethlisberger had his biggest passing day in the NFL despite a black-and-blue thumb that was encased in a splint and covered by a glove, but the Bengals came back every time Pittsburgh scored.
The Steelers led 7-0 and 14-7 and also tied it at 24 after trailing 24-17, but the Bengals repeatedly answered, twice scoring touchdowns within four plays of getting the ball back.
Palmer threw scoring passes of 43 and 6 yards to T.J. Houshmandzadeh and 1 yard to Reggie Kelly. A 6-yarder to Houshmandzadeh put the Bengals up 21-14 midway through the second quarter.
The biggest turnover might have come with the Steelers driving in the fourth quarter. Linebacker Odell Thurman stepped in front of a pass intended for Hines Ward and returned it to the Steelers 49, and Rudi Johnson scored six plays later from the 14 to make it 38-24. Johnson ran for 98 yards and has 1,066 for the season.
NOTABLE: After forcing four turnovers and committing none, the Bengals have a plus-24 turnover margin, with 37 takeaways and 13 turnovers.