Bengals send Steelers an early gift -- an AFC North crown

The Bengals yesterday helped give the Steelers something the Steelers stole from Cincinnati on the final day of last season -- a playoff spot, plus a bonus to boot, the AFC North Division championship.

Cincinnati hung on for a 19-14 victory against the visiting Cleveland Browns yesterday at Paul Brown Stadium, assuring the Steelers of their first division championship since 2004 no matter what the outcome of their final game in Baltimore Sunday.

The division title means a first-round playoff game will take place in Heinz Field Jan. 5 or 6 against one of the two wild-card playoff teams. A victory then would send the Steelers on the road to either Indianapolis or New England.

If San Diego (9-5) beats Denver tonight, the Chargers will become the No. 3 seed in the AFC and the Steelers No. 4. San Diego would own the tiebreaker against the Steelers based on a better conference record.

A San Diego victory would send Jacksonville to Heinz Field for the first-round playoff game as the No. 5 seed. Even though the Jaguars can finish one or even two games ahead of the Steelers, a division champion always trumps a wild-card team when it comes to determining home playoff games.

A Chargers win also would render the Steelers' final game in Baltimore meaningless to any postseason jockeying. No matter what the outcome, their seed would not change and the Ravens were long ago out of the running for a playoff spot.

It would mean coach Mike Tomlin could rest some players if he preferred, and the one who needs it the most is his quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger hobbled off the field with a sprained right ankle Thursday night in St. Louis and has been sacked 47 times, second most in team history and four short of Cliff Stoudt's 1983 record of 51.

New England and Indianapolis earned first-round playoff byes as the top two seeds in the conference. The Steelers could use the week of practice and the game Sunday against the Ravens to at least get some rest for players who have minor injuries.

The Steelers faced this kind of decision in a meaningless game before and under Bill Cowher the intent always was clear -- he would rest some key players, especially if they were injured, and pull others out of the game early. But the Steelers always played to win, nevertheless, and proved it when they went to Buffalo for the season-finale in 2004 and with a 14-1 record already had the AFC's No. 1 seed secured. They still beat the Bills to deny them a playoff spot.

This will be Tomlin's first chance to show what his philosophy is on the matter, and he could reveal it today at his noon news conference.

"Nobody wants to go in the playoffs on a down slope," defensive captain James Farrior said after the victory Thursday in St. Louis ended their two-game losing streak. "We definitely feel this is a step in the right direction. We still got another step to go. We know Baltimore is going to play us tough."

That could be yet another reason for the Steelers to rest some players. Baltimore linebacker Bart Scott, for instance, was incensed at a block Hines Ward threw on him in a 38-7 Steelers victory in Heinz Field Nov. 5. Scott declared he will seek revenge on their next meeting.

As guard Kendall Simmons declared, "Get healthy -- we're going to take advantage of Baltimore week. Just get healthy from here-on out.''

Tomlin already gave his players off until Wednesday before they even had clinched a playoff spot. That, and more, were delivered to them by their old pals from Cincinnati yesterday.

NOTES -- The Steelers' game at Baltimore has been changed to a 4:15 p.m. start. ... The Steelers likely will sign running back Verron Haynes today to replace Willie Parker on the roster.

First Published December 24, 2007 5:00 AM


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