CINCINNATI – Not yet, Bengals. Not quite yet.

Ben Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes in his return from a knee injury, and the Pittsburgh Steelers proved they’re still the team to beat in the AFC North by beating upstart Cincinnati 27-13 on Sunday.

The Steelers (4-2) haven’t lost their knack for winning tough game in tough places. They dominated the second half in front of a Cincinnati-record crowd of 66,104, setting a franchise record with their 10th straight road victory.

In the end, it was Hines Ward – not Chad Johnson – getting the last dance.

For the first time in their stadium’s six-year history, the Bengals (5-2) had the fans on their side for a home game against the Steelers. There was more orange than yellow in the crowd that turned out on a raw, rainy day – the kind the Steelers usually dominate with defense and runs.

They did again.

Willie Parker’s 39-yard touchdown run highlighted a 221-yard performance by Pittsburgh’s running game. Parker ran for 131 yards overall, and injury-slowed Jerome Bettis even got in a few licks on a defense that gives up 4.9 yards per try.

Ward’s 4-yard touchdown catch on the final play of the third quarter made it 24-6 and gave him a chance to rub it in with a little Riverdance-style celebration in the end zone.

Johnson got one chance to dance, but his opening-drive touchdown was overturned on review. The Steelers’ defense took it from there, making Carson Palmer look ordinary for the first time in 10 games.

Palmer had tied Peyton Manning’s NFL record of nine consecutive games with a passer rating of 100. The last time Palmer had struggled was in his last game against the Steelers, a 19-14 loss in Cincinnati last season.

Pittsburgh had two interceptions in the third quarter, setting up a decisive 10-point spurt. Palmer hadn’t thrown an interception in 20 quarters and 169 attempts.

To make matters worse, Palmer got flattened by his former Southern California roommate, safety Troy Polamalu, as he tried to make a tackle on one interception return. Palmer finished 21-of-36 for 227 yards and a 53.8 rating – well below average.

Roethlisberger and Palmer have ranked first and second in the NFL’s passer rankings the last four weeks. Roethlisberger sat out a 23-17 overtime loss to Jacksonville because of a sore knee, and backup Tommy Maddox had four turnovers.

Roethlisberger didn’t have to do much Sunday. He was 9-of-14 for 93 yards and threw his first interception of the season. The running game did the rest.

The Bengals’ biggest game since 1990 – the last time they had a winning record and made the playoffs – reminded their fans of their dismal past. They had their chance to make an opening statement, and completely Bungled it.

They drove easily down the field after the opening kickoff, and Johnson did a giddy little high-step after his diving catch in the back of the end zone was initially ruled a 16-yard touchdown catch.

The Steelers challenged the call, and referee Tony Corrente overturned it after a minutes-long review that drew boos from the crowd. Corrente decided that Johnson got only one foot down before his hand landed out of bounds.

Then, it got worse for Cincinnati. Rookie Chris Henry dropped a pass in the end zone, forcing a field goal attempt. Shayne Graham – the most accurate kicker in Bengals history – was wide to the left on a 30-yard attempt.

The Bengals’ next long drive ended in a 26-yard field goal by Graham, hardly what they needed. When Bettis started bowling them over, they knew they’d missed their chance.

With his belly drooping over his belt, the massive running back took handoffs and hit the line like a bowling ball smacking the pins, making them scatter. Bettis, slowed this season by a calf injury, finished with 56 yards.

Cincinnati’s defense lost first-round draft pick David Pollack in the second half. He limped off after one play and went for an examination on his left knee.

The game ended with several thousand Pittsburgh fans waving their yellow Terrible Towels and the Steelers walking off with arms raised.

Still the champs.

AP-ES-10-23-05 1616EDT


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