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Steelers move a step closer to playoffs, but AFC North title still unlikely

Cincinnati sure is nice this time of year.

For the Pittsburgh Steelers, anyway.

The Steelers’ 33-20 win over the Bengals Sunday was their 13th in their last 15 games at Cincinnati, including playoffs, and their 21st out of their last 26 going back to 1991.

Ben Roethlisberger improved to 11-2 at Paul Brown Stadium.

Steelers wins at Cincinnati have become one of those warm, fuzzy late-autumn experiences, like the smell of a burning fireplace or the taste of pumpkin spice.

In most years, these Steelers wins by the Ohio River are one of the building blocks of an AFC North title.

Could it possibly be again this year?

When the Bengals beat the Steelers at Pittsburgh in Week 8, it was as if the AFC North Champions caps and T-shirts were all but ready for online ordering. The Bengals improved to 7-0 while the Steelers dropped to 4-4 and lost Le’Veon Bell for the season.

The Bengals (10-3) could have clinched the division with a win Sunday. But the Steelers (8-5) weren’t going to let the Bengals celebrate in front of them.

It’s likely the Bengals will toast a division title at some point, however, unless the Steelers win their remaining games and the Bengals lose the rest of theirs.

The Bengals go to San Francisco next week. They’re at Denver in Week 16 and host Baltimore in Week 17. If they beat the Broncos or the Ravens, they’ll clinch the division because a win over the Broncos would ensure a better conference record than the Steelers and a win over the Ravens would ensure a better division record.

If the Steelers win out and the only Bengals win the rest of the way is over the 49ers, the Steelers have a shot at the division title if strength of victory is in their favor. That’s the fifth tiebreaker.

Andy Dalton fractured his thumb Sunday and is likely out for the rest of the regular season, so nothing is a given for the Bengals. But if they can find a way to win one of their final three games without Dalton, the division is probably theirs. Two more wins would clinch the division.

Dalton was hurt trying to tackle Stephon Tuitt after Tuitt intercepted a screen pass at the Steelers’ seven-yard line in the first quarter. The fifth-year quarterback will miss a game for the first time in his career.

While Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t string together 16-game seasons like Dalton and other quarterbacks, the nature of Dalton’s injury should make Steelers fans realize how lucky the Steelers are to have Roethlisberger.

Even though Tuitt is a few weight classes heavier than Dalton, this wasn’t the first time in the history of football that a quarterback has tried to make a tackle on an interception. It looked like a run-of-the-mill play, but somehow it ended Dalton’s season and the Bengals have to hope that he comes back for the playoffs.

For Roethlisberger to miss time, a safety has to dive at his knees or a linebacker has to fall on his foot. The Steelers have a playoff berth within their grasp despite both of those things happening to Roethlisberger this season.

Dalton, meanwhile, needs to drink more milk.

Dalton and the Bengals have been feasting on the junk food of the NFL since their win at Pittsburgh. They’re 3-3 since beating the Steelers. Two of those wins have come against the Browns and the other came at home against the Rams. They haven’t beaten a quality opponent since that win over the Steelers.

The balance of power in the AFC began to shift before Dalton’s injury. The Patriots and Broncos aren’t in as much trouble as the Bengals, but they’re also vulnerable.

The Steelers, meanwhile, have scored at least 30 points a franchise-record five straight times and on defense they’ve forced three turnovers in two straight games. They’re 8-2 when forcing at least one turnover.

One of those takeaways was William Gay’s pick-six of A.J. McCarron early in the third quarter. It not only gave the Steelers a 23-7 lead and control of the game, it also summoned the spirit of the 2014 Steelers.

The Steelers entered the final quarter of the 2014 season knowing that if they won their last four games, they’d be in the playoffs. That’s just what they did with the help of Gay’s pick-six in a 27-20 win at Atlanta.

They’re in the same situation this year. With every win, the Steelers not only take a step closer to the playoffs but they continue to feed the “team no one wants to face in the playoffs” narrative.

The Steelers can add to that fear factor with a win at home Sunday over the Denver Broncos, another possible playoff opponent.

Of course it’s one thing to be a team no one wants to play in December. It’s much more important to earn that respect in January.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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