Change overtakes Steelers' AFC North


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The Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals play a nationally televised game Sunday night at Heinz Field, and those in attendance and watching at home are going to think they're in the Bizarro World.

One team can clinch a playoff berth for the third consecutive season and for the fourth time in the past five years. The other team's season was pretty much over at the end of September.

For years, the Steelers were gearing up for playoff runs in December while the Bengals were playing out the string, but the roles are reversed this year.

After years of chasing the Steelers in the AFC North Division and the old AFC Central, the Bengals are now the top cats in the division.

It's a changing of the guard in the division after the Steelers and Ravens owned it for years. The Bengals can clinch the division championship outright with a win and a Ravens loss Monday night at Detroit.

The perch atop the division is certainly a new perspective for the Bengals, who had lost 20 of 26 to the Steelers before winning at Heinz Field late in 2012 and in Cincinnati the second week of this season.

They'll try to win three consecutive victories in the series for the first time in nearly a quarter-century.

The previous time they won three in a row against the Steelers was from 1988-90 when they won six consecutive games in the series.

It's a streak the Steelers (5-8) want to prevent, if not for any other reason than they would like to keep a mental edge against the Bengals.

"For us, it's about beating a division opponent, beating an opponent that we will play two times every year," safety Ryan Clark said. "There will be some carryover year to year. Guys will start to feel a way about a matchup. If you continue to let teams beat you and they feel like they have your number, I think it does play a role in each game."

Clark provided an example of a team he believed had a mental block with the Steelers. He said the Steelers had a mastery of the Ravens until recent years that manifested itself in playoff losses to the Steelers at Heinz Field in the 2008 and 2010 playoffs.

The Bengals have fallen victim to a Steelers mystique as well over the years. In 2005, they won the AFC North and had home-field advantage for a playoff game against the Steelers, but the Steelers won in Cincinnati, 31-17, en route to their fifth Super Bowl title.

Now, the tables appear to be turned.

Cincinnati won what was a de facto playoff game against the Steelers when they Bengals came to Heinz Field and won, 13-10, in December 2012. It was a significant victory for a team that had not enjoyed sustained success, especially in big games, against the Steelers.

"I think so because of the whole history," Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green said. "The Steelers had our number every year."

Backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski spent the past two seasons in Cincinnati where he helped mentor Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. He played on teams that made the playoffs in 2011 and 2012 and witnessed the revival that is taking place in the Queen City.

Once the Bengals make the playoffs this season, it will mark the first time in their history they have done that in three consecutive years.

"Cincinnati, the past couple of years, they've had a lot of talent," Gradkowski said. "Marvin Lewis does a great job with them, so it's a huge game for us no matter what the records are, no matter what's at stake for us."

"They know what type of organization this is and what type of players we have. Playing the Steelers, they know it will be a physical football game. I know Marvin Lewis knows that, and we know that, too. They have good players over there. They're playing well. I know their mindset, too. This is a big game for them. You enjoy tough football games like that."

And while the Steelers are playing for pride, the Bengals are playing for much more. If they win their final three games and New England Patriots lose once, Cincinnati will earn a bye for the first round of the playoffs. The Bengals have not had a playoff bye since 1988, when they most recently played in the Super Bowl.

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NOTES -- Defensive end Brett Keisel (foot) has been ruled out for the Bengals game. Nose tackle Steve McLendon is listed as questionable. All other players nursing injuries are listed as probable. ... Center Cody Wallace was fined a total of $17,875 for two fouls in the Miami game. He was fined $7,875 for striking Miami defender Randy Starks in the groin area in the second quarter. He was fined $10,000 for unnecessary roughness for a late hit in the fourth quarter. ... Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was named the Steelers Walter Payton Man of the Year, which qualifies him for the NFL's national 2013 Walter Payton Man of the Year award. The award recognizes a player's off-the-field community service as well as his playing excellence. The national winner will be announced at Super Bowl XLVIII. His community work includes the Ben Roethlisberger Foundation, which makes grants to local police and fire departments for K-9 units and service dogs. ... The Steelers signed defensive back Ross Ventrone (Chartiers Valley High School) to their practice squad and released defensive back Brandon Jones.


Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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