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Steelers, Bengals raise stakes in bitter rivalry

The Pittsburgh Steelers got just what they wanted for Christmas.

The Bengals.

The Steelers did what they had to do to make the playoffs. They beat the Browns 28-12 at Cleveland Sunday and got the help they needed in Buffalo when the Bills beat the Jets 22-17.

Bills cornerback Mario Butler – the anti-Ryan Succop – flew in like a superhero to break up what probably would have been a game-winning touchdown pass to Kenbrell Thompkins with 24 seconds left.

Now the sixth-seeded Steelers (10-6) are right back where they were at this time last year. They’re about to face a division rival in a wild-card game, possibly without their running back.

It’s too early to tell if DeAngelo Williams, who left Sunday’s game with an ankle injury, will be ready to go against the third-seeded Bengals (12-4). Perhaps it’s fitting that the Steelers play in Cincinnati on Saturday night, because like Le’Veon Bell last year Williams’ stride will be watched more closely this week than John Travolta’s during the opening credits of “Saturday Night Fever.”

The Steelers could have been a dead team walking after last week’s costly Baltimore flop, but the mental fortitude they showed in bouncing back could be evidence that unlike last season they can overcome the loss of their starting running back and win a playoff game.

If they don’t, it would be harder to swallow than last year’s wild-card loss to the Ravens at Heinz Field.

The Bengals have become a punching bag for losing in the wild-card round of the playoffs in four straight seasons. Andy Dalton, who will do all he can to return next week, is 0-4 in the playoffs. Marvin Lewis is 0-6 in the playoffs. The Bengals haven’t won a postseason game since 1990.

The Steelers can’t be the team that allows that futility to end. It would be a much bigger blow to the franchise’s pride than the Ravens’ first postseason win at Pittsburgh last year.

On a more tangible level, this rivalry has become a street fight.

Vontaze Burfict ended Le’Veon Bell’s season at Pittsburgh in Week 8 and the Steelers claimed that Burfict celebrated the tackle that caused Bell’s knee injury. Only those who were on the field will know whether Burfict really celebrated, but what was clear on television was that Burfict fled the scene like a child who broke a lamp.

When the Steelers and Bengals met again in Week 14 at Cincinnati, Burfict and Vince Williams got into a pre-game scuffle and there also were several shoving matches during the game. It appeared on one play that Burfict was diving at Ben Roethlisberger’s knees.

The Steelers can’t let this guy have the last laugh for 2015.

This was the second year in a row that Bell went down for the season against the Bengals. He suffered a hyperextended knee after being tackled by Reggie Nelson in last year’s regular-season finale, but there was nothing dirty about that play.

There also was nothing dirty about the way Kimo von Oelhoffen injured Carson Palmer’s knee in a 2005 wild-card playoff game at Cincinnati. Even if there was, losing Bell in both 2014 and 2015 is more than enough restitution.

Had Bell been available against the Ravens last January, the Steelers might not be in danger of going five years without a playoff victory for the first time since 1971.

Considering Roethlisberger turns 34 in less than two months, this would be a good time for that drought to end. Time is running out for the Steelers to add to their collection of championships while they have Roethlisberger. He’s taken a beating in his career and it can’t be assumed that he’ll remain an elite quarterback into his late-30s like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.

It’s been enjoyable to watch the Steelers rise from a .500 team in the middle of the season to the playoffs in each of the last two years. But this franchise has to get back to the days when just making the playoffs isn’t enough.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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