Big Ben, Steelers bash Bengals
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton meet in the middle of Heinz Field after a 35-7 Steelers win on Sunday. (AP photo)
Run the ball. Create turnovers. A big play or two on special teams helps. So does having a quarterback who knows what he's doing when the games dwindle to a precious few.
It's a formula the defending AFC champions have used for years. It has rarely looked as effective as it did in a 35-7 win Sunday.
Ben Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes to Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall ran for two more and the Steelers used an explosive second quarter to crush error-prone Cincinnati.
"We're in it now," linebacker James Farrior said. "Right now is our time. ... We already started our playoffs."
It certainly looked like it as Pittsburgh (9-3) swept the season series from Cincinnati (7-5) for the second straight year to end any realistic hopes the Bengals have of winning the AFC North.
"It's tough," said Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green, who caught an 11-yard touchdown pass but also committed a false start penalty that wiped out another score. "We shot ourselves in the foot sometimes. Being the veteran team they are, they capitalized on everything we did."
It's what the Steelers do this time of year.
Pittsburgh has been a mixed bag at times this season, often playing to the level of the competition, regardless of who it is.
The same team that handled New England with ease six weeks ago is the same one that barely escaped woeful Kansas City with a win last Sunday night, raising concerns about Roethlisberger's fractured right thumb, the running game and a defense nursing injuries to safety Troy Polamalu (concussion) and LaMarr Woodley (hamstring).
There were no anxious final moments against the Bengals. Pittsburgh's best quarter of the season left little room for doubt, scoring four touchdowns in a span of less than 12 minutes to break it open.
"Finally," Wallace said. "We always make it harder than it has to be. Today, we came out with a lot of emotion and a lot of energy. The guys just wanted to win. We knew what we had to do. It's getting closer to the playoffs and it's time for us to get better."
While the Bengals appear to be getting worse.
Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton passed for just 135 yards, was sacked three times by Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison and spent the fourth quarter on the bench as a preventative measure with the game out of reach.
"We can't let this hurt us," Dalton said. "We can't let this affect the next four."
Blocking it out might be tough.
Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis did little to downplay the game's importance, practically admitting his team's hopes for an outside shot at a divisional title would all but disappear if his surprising team couldn't earn a split with the Steelers.
The Bengals hung tough in a 24-17 loss to Pittsburgh three weeks ago, the kind of gritty performance that gave them hope they could earn a split with their division rivals and stay alive in their quest for a second division title in three seasons.