PITTSBURGH – Finally, after 15 folly filled years of doing it worse than almost every other team in pro sports, the Cincinnati Bengals proved they belong among the best.

The Bengals went into Pittsburgh in December, stood up to the team they rarely beat and all but secured their first division championship in 18 years, riding Carson Palmer’s three touchdown passes and a defense that forced four more turnovers in an all-important 38-31 victory over the Steelers on Sunday.

Rudi Johnson ran for Cincinnati’s final two scores, one after a 94-yard Tab Perry kickoff return and the other following Ben Roethlisberger’s third and most costly interception, as the Bengals (9-3) seized a two-game lead in the AFC North with four games to play.

The Steelers (7-5) got a gutty effort from Roethlisberger (29-of-41, 386 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions) despite a possible fractured right thumb, but dropped their third in a row and now are in danger of not making the playoffs a year after going 15-1.

Jaguars 20, Browns 14

CLEVELAND – The Jacksonville Jaguars didn’t miss Byron Leftwich as much as they feared.

David Garrard, making his fourth career start, threw two touchdown passes in the second half and made a crucial scramble for a first down in the final minutes as the Jaguars rallied for their fifth straight win, 20-14 over the Cleveland Browns.

With Leftwich out at least four weeks with a broken ankle, the Jaguars (9-3) have put their playoff hopes in the hands of Garrard, a four-year veteran with no big-game experience in the pros. But he came through in the clutch against the Browns (4-8), tossing two TDs – the second a 12-yarder to Jimmy Smith late in the third quarter – as Jacksonville overcame a 14-3 halftime deficit. He finished 11-of-20 for 116 yards and one interception.

Colts 35, Titans 3

INDIANAPOLIS – It was another perfect day for the Indianapolis Colts.

All three triplets achieved milestones Sunday, their methodical offense shredded the Titans’ young defense and Indy became the first NFL team to clinch a playoff spot by rolling to its 12th consecutive victory, 35-3.

Indianapolis (12-0) is now the fifth team in league history to start 12-0, the first since Denver in 1998, and again looked impressive as its historic quest for an undefeated season continued.

It didn’t take long for Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James to produce their usual show.

Manning completed 13 of 17 passes for 187 yards and three touchdowns, giving him 25 this season. That extended his own NFL record to eight straight seasons with at least 25 touchdown passes. James carried 28 times for 107 yards and one touchdown, becoming the second fastest player in league history to 9,000 yards. He now has 9,067 yards in 93 games. Eric Dickerson reached the milestone in 82 games.

Harrison also joined the milestone club by becoming the 12th player in league history to top 12,000 yards receiving.

Ravens 16, Texans 15

BALTIMORE – A game filled with blunders, fumbles and penalties ended in familiar fashion for the Houston Texans.

Matt Stover kicked a 38-yard field goal with 6 seconds left, giving the Baltimore Ravens a 16-15 victory over the bumbling Texans.

Kris Brown’s fifth field goal with 1:08 to go to put Houston in position for its second win of the season. But for the second straight week, the Texans (1-11) let a seemingly certain victory get away.

Starting at his 13, Baltimore quarterback Kyle Boller completed a 24-yard pass to Todd Heap on third down. Boller then completed an 11-yarder to rookie Mark Clayton, and got the Ravens (4-8) in field-goal position with a 35-yard pass to Clayton.

Boller went 17-for-33 for 198 yards and ran for a score.

Chiefs 31, Broncos 27

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – With a little help from instant replay, the AFC West race suddenly got a lot tighter.

The Kansas City Chiefs received a favorable ruling when they challenged the spot on a run that appeared to give Denver a first down near midfield on a fourth-and-1 play with 2:01 left.

Then the Chiefs (8-4) ran the clock down to 3 seconds and preserved a 31-27 victory that pulled them to within one game of the Broncos (9-3), who had won four in a row.

Trent Green threw two touchdown passes and Larry Johnson rushed for 140 yards and two more scores.

Chargers 34, Raiders 10

SAN DIEGO – LaDainian Tomlinson was jogging toward the locker room while his backup was running the other way, into the end zone.

By the end of the game, the San Diego Chargers were all heading in the same direction – a little bit closer to the playoffs following a 34-10 win over the Oakland Raiders.

Drew Brees threw two touchdown passes for the Chargers (8-4), who won their fifth straight game to pull within one victory of the AFC West-leading Denver Broncos.

San Diego got a scare when Tomlinson came out with a rib injury late in the second quarter.


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