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Palmer, Bengals hand reeling Steelers third straight loss

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Forget about the folly of a franchise long known as the Bungles. The Cincinnati Bengals proved to the Pittsburgh Steelers they're the best team in the AFC North right now and, most of all, they proved it to themselves.

The Bengals went into Pittsburgh on Sunday, stood up to the team they rarely beat and all but secured their first division championship in 15 years, riding Carson Palmer's three touchdown passes and a defense that forced four more turnovers in an all-important 38-31 victory over the Steelers.

Rudi Johnson ran for Cincinnati's final two scores, one after a 94-yard Tab Perry kickoff return and the other following Ben Roethlisberger's third and most costly interception.

With four games to play, the Bengals (9-3) seized a two-game lead in the AFC North.

Believe it, Cincinnati: The Bengals are assured of their first winning record since 1990 and are closing in on their first playoff appearance since the days of the Ickey Shuffle and Wicky Wacky Sam Wyche.

"It's a game we had to win to control the division," Palmer said. "You can say all you want about how we had to beat Pittsburgh, we just needed to win this game."

Fittingly, Steelers receiver Hines Ward imitated Ickey Woods' old touchdown dance after scoring, only he didn't know his Chad Johnson-like highstepping would come in the Bengals' biggest win in years.

"None of us have been in this situation before," Palmer said. "Someone said since it's been since 1990, but in no way are we set. We have a chance to be 13-3 and that's what we're working toward."

The Steelers (7-5) got a gutty effort from Roethlisberger (29-of-41, 386 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions) despite a possible fractured right thumb but dropped their third in a row and are in danger of not making the playoffs a year after going 15-1.

That's how pivotal this game was -- if the Steelers had won, they would have effectively been in the division lead by virtue of tiebreakers. Now they face an uphill climb to get a wild card berth.

The Steelers were 20-7 against the Bengals under coach Bill Cowher, including a 27-13 rout in Cincinnati on Oct. 23.

"But they're not the Bengals of old," Steelers guard Alan Faneca said. "Since Marvin Lewis came in, they've been a different team. They're starting to become a lot better."

Even on a day the Bengals had much going against them -- the crowd, the cold weather, their own history and an inspired game by a badly injured Roethlisberger -- they responded.

"It used to be Pittsburgh's time," said Chad Johnson, who wore a Steelers Terrible Towel afterward despite a relatively quiet and dance-less day of five catches for 54 yards. "Now it's Cincinnati's time."

Roethlisberger had his biggest passing day in the NFL despite a black-and-blue thumb that was encased in a splint and covered by a glove, but the Bengals came back every time Pittsburgh scored.

The Steelers led 7-0 and 14-7 and also tied it at 24 after trailing 24-17, but the Bengals repeatedly answered, twice scoring touchdowns within four plays of getting the ball back.

Palmer, who felt an urgency to beat the Steelers after losing his first three starts to them, threw scoring passes of 43 and 6 yards to T.J. Houshmandzadeh and 1 yard to Reggie Kelly.

Turnovers, as usual, played a big role for the Bengals, who have a remarkable plus-24 turnover margin, with 37 takeaways and 13 turnovers.

The biggest turnover may have come with the Steelers trying to drive for what would have been a tying score in the fourth quarter. Linebacker Odell Thurman stepped in front of a pass intended for Ward and returned it to the Steelers' 49, and Rudi Johnson scored six plays later from the 14 to make it 38-24. Johnson ran for 98 yards and has 1,066 for the season.

Roethlisberger, who returned for Monday's 26-7 loss in Indianapolis after missing three games following knee surgery, threw for more than 300 yards for only the second time in his 21-game starting career. His 41 attempts easily surpassed his previous career high of 28.

Roethlisberger wouldn't say if his thumb is broken, nor did he blame it for his interceptions.

"We've got a lot of guys dinged up, and we've got to play through pain," he said. "Myself included. It hurts, but it was good enough to play."

The way he and the Steelers were talking, the loss hurt more.

"We've put ourselves behind the 8-ball as far as the playoffs go," Ward said. "I think we've got to win all four of our games left."

Game notes
Roethlisberger's pregame warmup was monitored by team physician Jim Bradley, apparently to determine if he was healthy enough to play. ... The Bengals were outgained 474-324 but won for only the fourth time in their last 27 December road games. ... The Steelers were held to 95 yards rushing after getting a season-high 221 in Cincinnati. ... ... Pittsburgh had won six of seven and nine of 11 from the Bengals.