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Steelers face Bengals in must-win situation

CINCINNATI (AP) — Three consecutive road games, three wins.

The Bengals pulled off a franchise first in November, putting some distance between themselves and the rest of the AFC North.

Now’s their chance to start picking them off one by one, starting with Pittsburgh.

The Bengals can virtually eliminate the Steelers from the division title race on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, where they haven’t played in nearly a month.

Cincinnati (8-3-1) is up by a game and a half over the rest of the division — Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Baltimore all at 7-5 — with four games left.

“This is when teams create an opportunity to separate themselves and really have to come out and prove who they are,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said.

For a long time, the Steelers and Ravens contended for the division title while the Bengals and Browns tried to catch up. From 2006 until the start of the 2012 season, the Steelers won 10 of their 12 games against the Bengals.

Cincinnati got its breakthrough at Heinz Field on Dec. 23, 2012, knocking the Steelers out of playoff contention while advancing to a wild-card berth. Last year, the Bengals split their season series but won the division title.

“Since I’ve been here the past five years, Cincinnati has steadily gotten better every year,” Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds said. “And now they’re on top. So while they were a challenge those first few years, they’re definitely more formidable the past couple years than they’ve been.”

With a win on Sunday, the Bengals could knock the Steelers to 2 1/2 games back with three to play — a daunting gap. The Bengals go to Cleveland the following week with a chance to knock the Browns out of it as well.

If the Steelers win, they’ll have a chance to overtake the Bengals because the teams finish the season in Pittsburgh.

“I wish I could see the future, but I’m not Miss Cleo,” Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. “So, time will tell what’s going to happen there.”

It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to see the importance of this one.

Some things to watch on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium:

LE’VEON’S LOAD: Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell has a message for coach Mike Tomlin: More please. Bell is third in the league with 216 carries, and his 65 receptions are tied for 15th. Bell was on the field for more than 80 snaps during a loss to New Orleans last Sunday.

“At the end of the game I don’t feel fatigued or tired, I still feel energetic,” Bell said. “I just want to get as many carries and touches as we need to win the game. If it’s eight, so be it. If it’s 25, so be it.”

HITTING THE WALL: Rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant’s emergence keyed a midseason surge that put the Steelers back in the thick of the AFC North race. Opponents are adjusting. Bryant dropped a touchdown pass against Tennessee three weeks ago and had only one catch for 23 yards against the Saints.

“They’re keeping an eye on him,” Ben Roethlisberger said. “He obviously came into the league into his first couple of games and made some pretty big splashes. The secret is not there anymore. It’s good because now he works hard and it’s not just going to be easy for him.”

WHICH ANDY SHOWS UP? Andy Dalton was sick and threw three first-half interceptions during a 14-13 win at Tampa Bay that put the Bengals in control of the division on Sunday. He’s been highly erratic all season, leaving him one of Cincinnati’s biggest questions heading into the biggest games. He came through each of the past two years, leading the Bengals on strong closing runs — 7-1 in 2012, 5-1 last season. Does he have another one in him?

CHIN UP: Bengals punter Kevin Huber suffered a broken jaw and cracked vertebra at Pittsburgh last December when Terence Garvin decked him during Antonio Brown’s 67-yard punt return. Garvin wasn’t penalized but later got fined $25,000. Huber has made a full recovery and ranks second in the NFL in gross average and net average. He holds no grudge over the hit.

“The biggest thing that changed with me is looking around more, being aware of people around me and not just running around aimlessly and trying to get in the way,” Huber said.

HARRISON’S RETURN: Linebacker James Harrison spent an uneventful season in Cincinnati last year, and then returned home to Pittsburgh. He has kept in touch with several Bengals, though he won’t say which ones.

“There’s guys that I talk to that play there now,” he said. “I’ll talk to them as I have been since I left.”

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AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.

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