CINCINNATI -- Seeking to validate their heady 5-1 start with a victory against the division's long-time bullies, and to legitimize themselves as a viable playoff contender, the Bengals termed Sunday's matchup here against the Pittsburgh Steelers a "measuring stick" moment.
Given what transpired at rainy Paul Brown Stadium, though, the Bengals will probably recall the lopsided 27-13 defeat more as a whipping stick game.
"It was like we got hit with a two-by-four," acknowledged Bengals rookie middle linebacker Odell Thurman. "They brought the wood. They played with a purpose. They whupped us pretty good. It was like they came in here with an attitude and [determined] to deliver a message, you know?"
And that message, that the Steelers remain the team to beat in the AFC North even if the upstart Bengals still look like a talented team on the rise and continue to hold a half-game edge in the division despite the thorough thrashing, was delivered with all the subtlety of an uppercut to the gut.
As the Steelers exited through the visitor's tunnel following their dominating victory, one of the legion of diehard Pittsburgh fans who made the drive here dangled a hand-lettered placard which read: "This is Steelers' country." The army of Steelers supporters roared as linebacker Joey Porter spied the sign and acknowledged it with a thumbs up. For much of the day, however, it was the Bengals who were squirming under the thumbs of a Steelers team whose aggressive style is perhaps equaled only by its mental toughness.
The victory was the 10th straight road win for the Steelers, a team that considers itself the personification of a big needle stuck into the hot air balloon upstart franchises are forever attempting to launch, and a bunch that thrives on playing in hostile places. Cincinnati has become a difficult environ the last two years, but the Steelers made things look easy.
"When our backs are to the wall," said wide receiver Hines Ward, "that's when we're the most dangerous. We're not a team that's worried about [statistics]. We worry about wins, that's it, really. And this was a big, big win. Basically, what it said is that the [division] championship still comes through Pittsburgh. You want other teams to know that."
Said the always emotional Porter: "We restored some order [to the division] today."
Coming off a difficult overtime home loss to Jacksonville -- and a controversial week in which backup quarterback Tommy Maddox contended that his children were harassed in school and his front yard trashed after he threw an interception that was returned for the winning touchdown by Jaguars cornerback Rashean Mathis -- it might have been easy for Steelers players to have harbored some residual disappointment. But in a Saturday night team meeting, coach Bill Cowher stoked the flames when he reminded his players that they are still the defending division champions, that they always play with a bull's-eye on their collective chest, and that Sunday's game was essentially being viewed by the Bengals as a rite of passage.
He should have termed it a rite of "runnage," since Pittsburgh essentially trampled the Bengals in typical Steelers fashion, controlling the tempo with a brutal ground attack that totaled 221 yards on 47 rushes.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, a former Cowher assistant, allowed that the game was a learning experience for his young team. But until Cincinnati learns how to ratchet up the intensity against the Steelers, a team that always resorts back to the fundamentals and characteristically leans on its trademark smash-mouth approach in key games, the Bengals won't take the next step forward.
"I know they treated this like a measuring stick, to see how they compared to us," Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu said, "and we wanted to see how we stacked up to them, as sort of the new kids on the block. It was like they wanted a piece of us, and we came out to show them, hey, that's not necessarily a good thing to wish for. Once we got past some early rough spots, we just took over, and it became a Steelers kind of game."
That's for sure.
Responding to some not-so-veiled criticism from Cowher after last week's defeat, the Pittsburgh offensive line manhandled the Cincinnati front seven, creating big creases for tailbacks Willie Parker (18 carries, 131 yards, one touchdown), Jerome Bettis (56 yards on 13 rushes) and Verron Haynes (11 attempts for 35 yards). Parker's 37-yard burst over the right side midway through the third quarter lifted the Steelers into a 17-6 lead and it was obvious at that point the Bengals could not recover.
The performance marked a comeback of sorts for Parker, who has managed to retain his starting spot despite the presence of Bettis and Duce Staley, two higher-profile backs. It hasn't hurt, of course, that Staley has been injured and was inactive again Sunday, and some suspect he will have a difficult time getting back on the field. Notably quicker than his counterparts, Parker rushed for 272 yards and a 5.8-yard average per carry in his first two starts of the season, but had eked out just 45.3 yards and an anemic 2.8 yards per attempt over the last three games.
But with Parker providing the dash, and Bettis the smash, Cincinnati's defense could not get itself off the field. The Steelers had only five more snaps (62-57) than the Bengals but built up a time-of-possession advantage of more than 10 minutes (35:29 to 24:31). With the running game back in gear, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger attempted a mere 14 passes, completing nine for 93 yards, with scoring tosses of 2 yards to rookie tight end Heath Miller and of 4 yards to Ward.
In his 18 regular-season career starts, Roethlisberger, who sat out last week's loss with a hyperextended left knee, has averaged just 20.8 attempts. Only thrice has Roethlisberger been forced to throw more than 25 passes in a game. In seven starts, Roethlisberger has fewer than 20 attempts, and Sunday marked the second game this season that Pittsburgh has won with its quarterback throwing fewer than 15 passes.
"That's just us," said offensive right tackle Max Starks. "Nothing fancy. Play our style, don't panic, do what we do. Beat up on people, make enough plays in the passing game, and kind of impose our will on [our opponents]. Not a bad formula."
Not bad at all, particularly when the defensive component is factored in as well, and it was against a Cincinnati offense that entered the contest statistically rated No. 2 in the league and averaging 25.8 points per game, the NFL's fifth-best mark.
Pittsburgh dodged a bullet early when Cowher challenged a would-be touchdown grab by receiver Chad Johnson, and officials overturned the original call, ruling his elbow landed outside the end zone before he got both feet down. Normally reliable Shayne Graham subsequently missed a 30-yard chip shot field goal to totally botch the opening drive. In fact, the high-octane Bengals offense notched just two Graham field goals, of 26 and 39 yards until Carson Palmer scored from 4 yards out with just under two minutes remaining in the game, long after the outcome was determined.
The signature defensive play for the Steelers came early in the third quarter when free safety Chris Hope intercepted a pass intended deep up the right seam for wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and returned it 55 yards to the Cincinnati 15-yard line. The theft came just three plays after Bengals cornerback Tory James had picked off Roethlisberger to give Cincinnati possession in Pittsburgh territory.
Playing deep in a "Cover 3" zone, Hope made a terrific break on the ball, then picked himself up after stumbling and rumbled down the left sideline.
"I got a lot of help on the play," Hope said, "but, sure, I'd like to think it was a play that changed the momentum and broke their back. When our offense turns it over like that, we always want to try to get the ball back. I think it stunned them some. But I think we had them guessing a lot with how we were playing in the secondary."
Indeed, it was a strong performance turned in by a unit that, until just before game time, was uncertain of who would start at cornerback because of injuries. What was certain since late in the week was that the Steelers, in a deviation for this coaching staff, would have third-year cornerback Ike Taylor, quickly emerging as a big-time cover defender, shadow Johnson all over the field. Not since Rod Woodson was in his prime has Cowher made such a call, but Taylor is developing into a clutch performer, and the secondary into a standout unit.
Johnson was limited to four catches for 94 yards, but 47 of those yards came on the final possession of the game, when the Steelers were playing soft.
The secondary limited Palmer to 21 completions in 36 attempts for 227 yards, with no touchdown passes and two interceptions, and at least three more near-interceptions that were dropped. Palmer was sacked twice and his 53.8 efficiency rating was his worst of the season. In fact, the Steelers snapped Palmer's string of nine straight starts with a passer rating of 100 or more, which tied an NFL record.
The Steelers' defense was especially dominant in the second half. The Hope interception began a stretch in which Cincinnati managed a scant three first downs on five possessions and notched just 44 yards over that period. The stretch of futility, which finally ended with the meaningless 79-yard touchdown drive in the waning minute, included a pair of interceptions and three punts.
Not only did the Steelers shut down the pass, but they stuffed the run, too, limiting the Bengals to 91 yards for the day. Cincinnati running back Rudi Johnson was notably less than thrilled about getting only a dozen carries (for 65 yards), or the fact Cincinnati had just 19 rushes in the game. But if the Bengals' approach to what everyone figured would be a battle of attrition was confusing, the Cincinnati offense usually just looked confused.
It was arguably the most flummoxed Palmer -- a player some media members are touting as a MVP candidate -- has been in a long time. And his confusion clearly lingered long after the game ended.
In a statement that left one wondering if Palmer had any clue as to what happened here Sunday, or if he had suffered a concussion that brought upon an attack of amnesia, he contended that the Bengals were still a "better team" than the Steelers.
Cincinnati will get another chance to back up that strange rhetoric on Dec. 4, when the two division rivals play again at Heinz Field. Next time, Cincinnati might want to think about showing up ready to dodge that whipping stick with which it got smacked Sunday.
"You want to measure up to us, then you better measure up to our intensity," Porter said, "because in these so-called 'statement games,' we're the team that's usually making the biggest statement."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.