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Bengals’ win ends 8-year home drought to Pittsburgh

CINCINNATI — Why not the Bengals?

Eight years had passed since Cincinnati beat the Pittsburgh Steelers at home, an excruciating streak that symbolized the gulf between the two family-run franchises.

It ended with the Bengals’ 23-20 win on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, one that felt like a seismic shift.

A day later, players and fans accustomed to being humbled at home were wondering what other breakthroughs are ahead for the Bengals (2-1), one of the NFL’s early surprises. They’ve got a favorable schedule, and their franchise quarterback is back.

“It’s a confidence booster,” said Andre Caldwell, who caught the winning touchdown pass with 14 seconds left. “We’re letting the world know that we feel we’re a competitive team and we’re something to be reckoned with.”

A lot of it has to do with the quarterback.

Carson Palmer led a winning 16-play touchdown drive against the Steelers, culminating in his improvised 4-yard pass to Caldwell. It was his second clutch drive in three games and a reminder that the Bengals are always dangerous with Palmer, who missed a dozen games last season because of an injured elbow.

“I think it starts with the quarterback,” coach Marvin Lewis said Monday. “There’s a calmness that he has in those situations. He has command of the things that he likes, when it’s up to him to make the calls.”

So far, he’s been at his best running the no-huddle offense in the final, frantic minutes. He led a 91-yard touchdown drive in the opener against Denver that put the Bengals up 7-6 with 38 seconds left. Palmer was perfect on that drive, which was virtually forgotten when the Broncos’ Brandon Stokley took a tipped pass 87 yards for a touchdown and a 12-7 win.

Against the Steelers, Palmer converted a pair of fourth-down throws on the winning drive, including an 11-yarder to running back Brian Leonard on fourth-and-10 that set up the winning throw.

All three of Cincinnati’s games, including a 31-24 win at Green Bay, have been decided in the final minute.

“It’s a blast when it goes right, but I’m getting too old to have to put up with that every week — on the edge of your seat, your heart pounding, biting your nails and all that,” the 29-year-old quarterback said.

It’s infinitely better than last year, when the Bengals won only four games without Palmer. Or those last eight games against the Steelers in Cincinnati, which ended with thousands of Pittsburgh fans gleefully twirling their yellow towels while Bengals fans fled their own stadium in misery.

When the streak ended on Sunday, Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” played on a continuous loop over the locker room sound system. One of the lines from the opening verse summed up the day: “It’s been a long, a long time coming.”

Cooke’s mellow voice gave way to pulsating, contemporary tunes on Monday, mixed with the clash of metal weights clanging together as players worked out. The music was starkly different, but the smiles hadn’t change.

This one was worth savoring for one more day.

“That was tremendous,” injured tight end Reggie Kelly said. “I’m definitely thrilled for my teammates. I’m also happy for the fans. They’ve endured a lot; they’ve endured a lot of trash talk as well. I’m happy to see the fans get some gratitude out of this whole situation that we finally beat them at home.”

The win over Pittsburgh started a stretch of three consecutive games against AFC North opponents. The Bengals play at winless Cleveland on Sunday then visit the first-place Ravens in Baltimore. They play Baltimore and Pittsburgh back-to-back in November, followed by an easier stretch — a game at Oakland followed by home games against Cleveland and Detroit.

Each season, a few teams unexpectedly play their way into contention by taking advantage of breaks and winning close games. The Bengals have a lot of things to fix — the offense has struggled outside of the closing minutes, and the defense got riddled by the Steelers — but sense that things are going their way.

“I know this is going to add some confidence to this team,” Kelly said. “I hope we can continue and ride off this confidence for the rest of the season.”

NOTES: LB Rey Maualuga had his sprained left knee re-examined on Monday. Maualuga got hurt in the third quarter and was taken off the field on a cart, but returned and played. He had a pronounced limp on Monday. … Kelly, who ruptured the Achilles’ tendon in his left leg during training camp, is ahead of schedule in his recovery and hopes to be jogging within a month. The tight end expects to play next year. … The Bengals gave a check for $36,890 to the United Way on Monday. They sold out their home opener against Denver only after promising to give the charity $10 for every ticket sold in the final week.