CINCINNATI (AP) – Marvin Lewis can put the final touch on his grand rebuilding by beating the team that gave him the blueprint.

For the first time in 15 years, the Cincinnati Bengals have a chance to take control of their division and join the ranks of NFL teams with legitimate playoff aspirations. And they know it.

Their game today against the defending AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers represents their grandest moment in perhaps the last 15 years – certainly the biggest during Lewis’ three seasons of resurrecting the Bengals.

“Oh, man, it’s like Hollywood out here,” said receiver Chad Johnson, who promises a Pittsburgh-flavored touchdown celebration. “We have to keep it going. The buzz and the electricity around here is crazy. It’s been a long time since people have felt this way about our team.”

Fifteen years, to be precise. The Bengals (5-1) haven’t had a winning record or made the playoffs since 1990, one of the longest streaks of futility in NFL history.

Lewis, who got more clout than his predecessors, has the Bengals contending in his third season. He’s done it by modeling them after Pittsburgh and Baltimore, where he coached defense.

“Everything we’ve done has been put together that way,” Lewis said. “The way we practice physically, and the tempo, the spirit. It’s that way because that’s how you have to play the game. You can’t go out and pitty-pat and play the game on Sunday. You’ve got to hit people.

“And that’s what it’s all about. That’s been our mind-set all the way through, to bring players here who can handle that challenge and are up to that challenge.”

Few teams are better at meeting such challenges than the Steelers (3-2), who have built their reputation on winning tough games in tough places. They’ve won their last nine road games since a 30-13 loss in Baltimore on Sept. 19 last season, the game in which then-rookie Ben Roethlisberger took over at quarterback after Tommy Maddox got hurt.

Roethlisberger sat out a 23-17 overtime loss to Jacksonville last Sunday because of an injured left knee, but is expected to play in Cincinnati. Roethlisberger has won all of his eight starts on the road.

“It’s a must-win game for us,” said Roethlisberger, who won both of his games against the Bengals last season.

“It’s our biggest game of the year, and we have to go out and play like it is.”

The Bengals hope to make it one of those changing-of-the-guard moments.

A victory would give them a 2-game lead over the Steelers, who don’t want to fall so far behind so deep into the season.

The Steelers haven’t lost consecutive games since the middle of the 2003 season. They can’t afford to do it now.

“We’re definitely going to see where we’re at right now,” Steelers linebacker James Farrior said. “They’re the division leaders, so we’ve got to come in and be prepared to play a hard, tough game.”

They’ll have to do it without their customary home-away-from-home advantage in Cincinnati.

Back-on-the-bandwagon Bengals fans bought most of the tickets for this game, giving them a rare majority over the black-and-yellow.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun to have them in our place,” quarterback Carson Palmer said.

Which side does more cheering will likely come down to whether the Bengals can stop Pittsburgh’s famed running attack – Cincinnati gives up 4.9 yards per rush – and which of the two young quarterbacks has the better day.

For the last four weeks, Roethlisberger and Palmer have been Nos. 1 and 2 atop the NFL passer ratings. It’ll be only the second time since 1990 that two quarterbacks had 100-plus passer ratings in a game so late in the season.

Palmer has tied Peyton Manning’s NFL record of nine consecutive games with a rating of 100 or more. The Steelers were the last team to hold him under triple digits, making him look average in their 19-14 win at Paul Brown Stadium last Nov. 21.

“I have a lot more experience, so I feel like I’m a different quarterback since that game,” Palmer said.

So are the Bengals, who went to two Super Bowls in the 1980s, then went down in the dumps. A win would prove they’re back.

“They’re not the Cincinnati Bengals of old,” Steelers guard Alan Faneca said.

AP-ES-10-20-05 1505EDT


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