PITTSBURGH (AP) — It seems borderline surreal, a role reversal as stunning as it is definitive.
A year ago, the Cincinnati Bengals came to Heinz Field in December and emerged with a 13-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. That propelled Cincinnati to a second straight postseason berth and sent its longtime nemesis into a downward spiral from which it is still trying to recover.
"I think (it was big)," Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green said. "The Steelers had our number every year, even when I first got here."
Not anymore. Not by a long shot. If anything, the gap between the two franchises has only widened over the last 12 months.
Cincinnati (9-4) can win the division title and its third consecutive trip to the playoffs with a victory Sunday night and a Ravens' loss to the Lions Monday night. If they beat the Steelers, the Bengals would jump over the Patriots into the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
The Steelers (5–8) need to win out just to avoid the club's first losing season in a decade.
Welcome to the new AFC North, the one where the balance of power is 60 minutes away from sitting well west of Pittsburgh and Baltimore — at a place that has spent most of the last two decades serving as fodder for the rest of the league.
Those days are over. The Bengals, not the Steelers, are the ones with the young and athletic defense. The Bengals, not the Steelers, are the ones with the dynamic running game. The Bengals, not the Steelers, are the ones with the swagger of a champion.
What better chance to show the world just how far they've come than on national television?
"There's going to be more people watching," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "We have to put our best foot forward and be playing our best, show everyone what this team is and what we're made of."
The Steelers are trying to do the same. The meaningful portion of their season came to an end in a 34-28 loss to Miami last week that all but mathematically eliminated them from the chase for the AFC's second wild card berth. They insist, however, they're not going to just play out the string.
"I'm motivated to play as hard as I can," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "I'm sure everyone else is."
Five things to look for as Cincinnati tries to cement its newfound perch atop one of the league's better divisions.
HARRISON'S HOMECOMING: Bengals linebacker James Harrison returns to the place where he forged a career as one of the most talented and menacing players in the league. The Steelers cut Harrison last spring after failing to reach agreement on a restructured contract. He landed in Cincinnati, where he's found a niche as a role player on a defense that is one of the NFL's most aggressive.
PITTSBURGH'S PATCHY D: The Steelers are in danger of finishing outside the top 10 in total defense for the first time this millennium. Pittsburgh is 13th in yards allowed with three weeks to go. The biggest culprit has been an inability to stop opponents from ripping off chunks of yardage. The Steelers have given up 11 plays of 50 yards or more this season, the most in the league.
DYNAMITE DALTON: Dalton is having the best season of his brief career thanks in part to an offensive line that makes sure his No. 14 jersey looks the same at the end of the game as it did at the beginning. Dalton has gone three straight games without taking a sack. It's not a coincidence the Bengals are 3-0 in those games and have gone over 40 points twice.
"I think any quarterback throws the ball better when there's not a lot of people around him," Dalton said. "Our line has done a good job, and we have to keep that going."
BALANCE WITH BELL: The Steelers rank just 31st in the league in yards rushing, though they insist they're happy with the ground game. Rookie Le'Veon Bell is averaging over 90 yards from scrimmage per game thanks in part to his versatility. He already has 39 receptions, most of them on what are basically extended handoffs.
GREEN VS. TAYLOR: Green has emerged as one of the top wide receivers in the league, but he's had trouble at times against Pittsburgh veteran cornerback Ike Taylor. Green caught six passes for just 41 yards in a 20-10 victory over the Steelers at home back in September. If Taylor can keep Green under wraps, the Steelers have a chance to postpone Cincinnati's party, at least for a bit.
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