PITTSBURGH (AP) -Less than two years ago, Bengals receiver Chad Johnson sensed a shifting of the winds in the AFC North. Turns out Johnson is a better pass catcher than he is a navigator or fortune teller.
After the Bengals put the Steelers' playoff chances in jeopardy with a 38-31 win at Heinz Field on Dec. 4, 2005, Johnson proclaimed, ``It used to be Pittsburgh's time, now it's Cincinnati's time, and it'll probably be that way for a while. They're like black and white TV, we're like color TV.''
Wonder if a couple of seasons have colored Johnson's thinking?
Turns out that ``while'' the Bengals held the edge over the Steelers lasted all of a month, or until Pittsburgh won an AFC playoff rematch in Cincinnati 31-17 in January 2006.
In reality, time hasn't changed at all, as evidenced by the Steelers' workmanlike 24-13 victory Sunday in Cincinnati. At least from the Bengals' standpoint, it must seem as if they're on perpetual EST: Eternal Steelers Time.
The Steelers' victory was their seventh in a row in Cincinnati and their 12th in their last 16 games against the one-time Bungles. Since Johnson proclaimed the balance of power had shifted in the AFC North, the Steelers are 21-10 and have won a Super Bowl; the Bengals are 12-16.
Over the next five weeks, four of which they will spend at home, the Steelers have a prime opportunity to take a secure grip on the AFC North race. They've got Baltimore (4-3) Monday night followed by the Browns (4-3), then slip away to play the Jets (1-7) before returning home to play the Dolphins (0-8) and the Bengals (2-5) again.
The combined records of the five: 11-26.
It's probably too early to speculate but the Steelers will be favored to take a 10-2 record into their Dec. 9 game at New England (8-0).
``We are getting better and better each week,'' said wide receiver Hines Ward, who had his first two touchdown catches Sunday since sitting out two games with a knee injury.
Of course, he was tossing out that 31-28 loss in Denver the week before. Perhaps that's because the Steelers didn't need much time to shift their focus from Cincinnati to Baltimore, which had last weekend off.
The Ravens bullied the Steelers last season like no other division team has done in recent seasons, winning 27-0 in Baltimore and 31-7 in Pittsburgh. The losses were the only two the Steelers had during the second half of the season and prevented them from making the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.
It wasn't only that the Ravens beat the Steelers, it was how they beat them. The Ravens had 14 sacks in the two games to Pittsburgh's none, forced four Ben Roethlisberger interceptions and held Willie Parker to 51 yards on 23 carries. In his other 14 games, Parker ran for 1,443 yards.
``They roughed us up, a lot,'' Roethlisberger said. ``We need another all-around performance like we had (in Cincinnati), in all phases of the game.''
A year ago, Roethlisberger repeatedly had trouble coping with a Ravens pass rush that never let up or was controlled by Pittsburgh's offensive line. This season, Roethlisberger has been more mobile, repeatedly making plays in Cincinnati by dodging the blitz and improvising.
No doubt it has helped that Roethlisberger has remained relatively healthy; a year ago, he was coping with the problems associated with a motorcycle crash, an appendectomy and two concussions.
``I think we are all getting comfortable with expecting those kind of plays from him because that is what he is capable of,'' coach Mike Tomlin said. ``Generally, a great decision maker under those circumstances when plays break down. I think potentially, that's what makes him different from most. He remains calm and he makes good decisions when those plays break down.''
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