PITTSBURGH (AP) -What a mess the Cincinnati Bengals are getting themselves into.
The underachieving-yet-again Bengals (4-7) are one loss away from a 16th non-winning season in the last 17 and, with it, likely playoff extinction.
It's a familiar scenario for a team that regularly packs it in most Decembers, when the good teams pull away, the bad teams fall apart and the Bengals become ... the Bungles.
Worse still, they're being packed off to Pittsburgh and mushy Heinz Field, the NFL's answer to sandlot football with its slippery surface, huge brown spots where there should be grass and ankle-deep ruts.
Only six days after the Steelers beat the Dolphins 3-0 on a muddy, mucky swampland of a field that became saturated with near-record rain and slowed both teams to a crawl, the Steelers (8-3) and Bengals (4-7) will try to play a reasonable facsimile of an NFL game there Sunday night. Hip boots are optional.
``I've never seen a field that bad, really,'' Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said.
The weather forecast? Windy, with a good chance of rain - nearly the same forecast for last Monday, though no one is expecting the nearly 1 1/2 inches that fell that day.
Here's the surprise for those that don't keep up with the day-to-day doings of the AFC North: Despite their record, despite their history, the Bengals might be the team best equipped to play in Pittsburgh so soon after the Monday Night Mud Bowl.
The Bengals' own grass practice field isn't much better this time of year, and no other division team has played as well in Heinz as the Bengals. They've won two in a row there and three of four, and they certainly should have a sense of urgency to win this one.
Lose and the Bengals are out of the division race because the Steelers can finish no worse than 9-7 and the Bengals no better than 8-8.
``If we don't, we're finished,'' coach Marvin Lewis said. ``We have no margin of error.''
The Steelers make a habit of ending Cincinnati's season, doing so in the wild-card playoffs two seasons ago and on the final day of the regular season last year. Both those games were in Cincinnati, fittingly enough given the visiting team has won nine of the last 10 in the series.
``Every time they play them, they play their `A' ballgame,'' Steelers running back Willie Parker said. ``Every time we play them, it's tough.''
The Bengals are coming off their best game of the season, a 35-6 win over Tennessee, and have averaged nearly 28 points while winning two of three. Quarterback Carson Palmer finally has a healthy group of receivers and the Bengals clearly don't fear Heinz Field, even though the Steelers are 6-0 there this season.
``It's a tough place to play, if you come in intimidated, if you come in worrying about the atmosphere there,'' said Palmer, who has seven touchdown passes and two interceptions in his last three games against Pittsburgh. ``We come in and we love playing there.''
Still, Palmer said that without knowing exactly what the field conditions will be.
The NFL kept an operations official in town all week to monitor the field, which dried out considerably after a string of good weather days at midweek and should be in much better shape come Sunday night.
Unless it rains, of course.
``We know what it's like to go into Pittsburgh and run the ball effectively and win games,'' said Rudi Johnson, the last opposing runner to gain 100 yards in Heinz Field. ``We know what it takes. We've done it before. It's a proven fact.''
While the Bengals' offense finally seems to be coming around, the Steelers played their two worst games of the season in losing 19-16 to the Jets - winners of only one previous game - and barely holding off the winless Dolphins.
The Steelers' problems are obvious, even as they have won four of five. Ben Roethlisberger is getting sacked far too often, 12 times in two games and 16 times in three games, creating too many second- and third-and-long situations.
As a result, the Steelers have only one touchdown and 479 yards in their last eight quarters after being one of the NFL's top offenses most of the season. Parker has six 100-yard games but only one in his last four games.
When the Steelers won 24-13 in Cincinnati on Oct. 28, Parker ran for 126 yards and Roethlisberger passed for 230 yards and two scores. The Steelers stayed with their predictable game plan: run to set up favorable passing downs, control the ball and shut down Chad Johnson.
Johnson, who hasn't had a 100-yard receiving game in seven starts against the Steelers since 2003, was held to five receptions for 51 yards.
Johnson came out of a lengthy slump by making three touchdown catches against Tennessee, his first scoring plays since the second game of the season. He also got a 15-yard penalty for jumping behind a TV camera and playing cameraman after scoring.
After witnessing that, Steelers safety Anthony Smith said he doesn't plan on giving Johnson, Houshmandzadeh (league-high 83 catches) or Chris Henry much TV time. Henry didn't play in the earlier game against Pittsburgh, but has 15 catches the last three games.
``His (Johnson's) confidence is back up there, but it will get right back down to reality once he gets hit a couple of times,'' Smith said. ``You've got to be physical with them because it throws them off their game. When you hit them hard, they tend to run away.''
Sounds like things are back to normal in the Bengals-Steelers rivalry, bad field or not.

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