The pattern looked familiar Sunday at Heinz Field. The Steelers jumped to an early lead, and then everyone waited for the other shoe to drop, for the opponent to mount a comeback that would make things interesting at the end.
Even the players were aware of their 2011 ritual of watching early leads slip away.
"We kept saying on the sideline, 'Keep playing, don't let up!'" receiver Mike Wallace said. "We just kept our foot on it."
The Steelers kept their foot, among other things, on the gas pedal all afternoon and ran away with a 35-7 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals, one of those teams which came back against them three weeks earlier.
The game was the Steelers most lopsided and complete victory of the season and kept them on pace with New England, Houston and Baltimore for the best record in the AFC at 9-3. That won't do it for the Steelers in terms of a division title and a playoff bye if they end up tied with the Ravens, but they still have four games to try to break the deadlock, starting Thursday night against Cleveland at Heinz Field.
"If we can play well in all three phases, we'll be a tough team to beat down the stretch," defensive end Brett Keisel said.
Sunday's game could go up on the chalkboard the way a coach might draw up that perfect scenario:
• Special teams: Cameron Heyward blocked a short field-goal attempt, Antonio Brown returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown and Stevenson Sylvester forced a fumble on a kickoff return that Emmanuel Sanders recovered.
• Offense: Mike Wallace caught two touchdown passes from Ben Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall ran for two scores. The Steelers also scored all four times when they reached the red zone.
• Defense: Ike Taylor intercepted a pass, linebacker James Harrison sacked rookie quarterback Andy Dalton three times and the Steelers allowed just seven points.
"They beat us in every area today," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "They beat us on offense, beat us on defense, and beat us on special teams."
It was, as Harrison explained it, "all-around, 60-minute football."
After a scoreless first quarter in which the Bengals scored twice but had penalties cancel each before Heyward's block, the Steelers scored three consecutive times in the second quarter for a 21-0 lead. Cincinnati came back when Dalton threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green, and then Brown made it 28-7 just before the half with his 60-yard touchdown, his first on a punt return.
"Nobody touched me," said Brown, who received an important block from Bryant McFadden to spring him down the right sideline.
Wallace caught his second touchdown pass of the game in the third quarter from Roethlisberger, who retired with 10 minutes left in favor of Charlie Batch. Wallace broke a gaggle of tackles on a short screen that covered 19 yards.
"About five or six, not too many," Wallace cracked.
No comebacks this time. In previous games, the Steelers led the Colts, 10-0, in the first quarter and had to come back to win, 23-20; a 17-0 lead against Jacksonville turned into a 17-13 win with the Jaguars throwing the ball into the end zone at the end; they had the Bengals down, 14-0, in Cincinnati and had to score in the fourth quarter to break a tie and win, 24-17.
"Finally!" said Wallace, who has eight touchdown receptions. "We always make it harder than it has to be. We came out with a lot of emotion and a lot of energy. The guys just wanted to win."
Cincinnati wanted to win, too, because the Bengals desperately needed it to maintain their inside track on a wild-card playoff berth. Their third loss in four games dropped them to 7-5.
They blew their chances at running out to an early lead. Their first series reached the Steelers 4, where Dalton connected with Jermaine Gresham in the end zone. However, a false start nixed that play and Dalton threw incomplete on the next one. Mike Nugent then kicked a field goal but the Bengals were penalized for delay of game. Nugent then tried a 33-yard attempt that Heyward blocked.
The Bengals second series reached the Steelers 42 but fizzled and then all Heinz broke loose.
"It was one thing after another in that first part," Lewis moaned.
The Steelers scored on three consecutive drives in the second quarter and the rout was on.
Their first two scores came after 45-yard plays:
• Brown took a short slant pass from Roethlisberger and turned it into a nice, 45-yard reception to the Cincinnati 9. Four consecutive running plays later, Mendenhall made a nice cut inside for a 3-yard run and a touchdown.
• The next Steelers drive began with a 45-yard pass interference penalty against safety Chris Crocker on Wallace. That put the ball on Cincinnati's 20 and Mendenhall did the rest, running 15 yards on first down, none on second and 5 and the touchdown on his third try.
A few minutes later, the Steelers had a 21-0 lead after Cincinnati's Brandon Tate fumbled the kickoff return. Three plays later, Roethlisberger rolled away from pressure to his right and threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Wallace.
"Everybody put their hand in the pile today," said Hines Ward, who had five catches for 30 yards and became the 19th receiver in NFL history with 12,000 yards. "That's what you have to start doing in the month of December, playing good, all-around football. We displayed that."
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published December 5, 2011 5:00 AM