Meaningless game unusual for Steelers

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 27, 2003

PITTSBURGH - Ask the Pittsburgh Steelers how it feels playing a win-or-else game against the Cincinnati Bengals with a season winding down, and the response is a puzzled look or a blank stare.

After all, none of these Steelers has played in such a game - not when it counted, not when a season was on the line, not when the Bengals were in first place and Pittsburgh was trying to catch them.

The Steelers (4-7) and Bengals (6-5) have played in the same division since 1970, yet only a handful of their previous 65 games was as meaningful to both teams as Sunday's game in Pittsburgh.

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The Bengals have won five of six, but their next two games are against the team they've spent years trying to catch (Pittsburgh) and the team with which they're tied (Baltimore). Since the Bengals last won their division in 1990, the Steelers have won seven division titles and appeared in four AFC championship games and one Super Bowl.

''They've always played us well, and always played hard, but they've never really found a way to win games. They've always seemed to have bad luck,'' guard Alan Faneca said Wednesday. ''Last year, I remember Corey Dillon being stopped at the goal line (in the Steelers' 29-21 win in Pittsburgh) at the end of the game. Now they're finding a way to overcome things like that."

''That's where you start to make a turnaround with your organization.''

Running back Jerome Bettis said it's evident when watching the Bengals that they're playing with the kind of confidence they've lacked for so long.

''They're flying around and playing with a sense of urgency, and I believe you couldn't really say that years ago,'' Bettis said. ''That is noticeably different.''

So are the circumstances. This is the first time since Cincinnati's 16-12 victory at Three Rivers Stadium on Dec. 2, 1990, that both teams will be in contention so deep in a season - even if Pittsburgh is only on the fringe of it.

That year, the Bengals, Oilers and Steelers tied at 9-7 but, based on tiebreakers, Cincinnati won the AFC Central, Houston got a wild card and Pittsburgh got left out.

Since then, Pittsburgh is 19-6 against Cincinnati, with half those losses coming during consecutive losing seasons in 1998 and 1999.

''Now they're finding a way to win games, and that's all it takes,'' Faneca said.