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Dec 28, 2014 10:54 PM

Steelers lead Bengals 20-10 after 3 quarters

The Associated Press

PITTSBURGH (AP) Antonio Brown returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown, Ben Roethlisberger hit Martavis Bryant for a 21-yard score and the Pittsburgh Steelers led the mistake-prone Cincinnati Bengals 20-10 after three quarters Sunday night.

The Steelers moved within 15 minutes of their first AFC North title since 2010 by relying on big plays from the NFL's second-ranked offense and some questionable throws by Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, who tossed a pair of first-half interceptions to Brice McCain.

The winner will be the No. 3 seed in the AFC and host Baltimore next weekend, while the loser will play at Indianapolis.

Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell left the game late in the third quarter after taking a shot to the right knee from Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson. Bell, voted Pittsburgh's Most Valuable Player by his teammates last week, jogged off the field but was in obvious pain as he was examined on the sideline. He eventually was taken to the locker room. Bell is second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage and has been vital to Pittsburgh's run to contention over the last two months.

Brown kickstarted the Steelers early in the first quarter, fielding a punt from Kevin Huber at the Pittsburgh 29 and raced to his right only to reverse back to his left, pushing teammate Shamarko Thomas into Huber's way to clear a path to the end zone.

Cincinnati evened it later in the first. Dalton overcame a poorly overthrown interception on Cincinnati's second possession by converting a fourth-and-3 with a 14-yard pass to Brandon Tate then following it up with a nifty flip to Bernard after escaping the pass rush. Bernard leapt over two Steelers before reaching over the goal line.

Roethlisberger skipped his usual pregame warmup, not coming on to the field until the defense was being introduced just minutes before the kickoff while dealing with flu-like symptoms. He passed for 224 yards through three quarters but also turned it over twice, fumbling a botched snap and tossing an interception into double-coverage in the third quarter with Pittsburgh trying to extend its lead.

Roethlisberger was sharp for much of the first half despite the illness. A 26-yard throw to Bell set up Shaun Suisham's field goal that tied it at 10 midway through the second quarter. Dalton then overthrew A.J. Green, who tipped the ball into the hands of McCain. A lengthy return set the Steelers up at the Cincinnati 28. Two plays later Bryant took a wide receiver-screen and darted to the end zone for his eighth touchdown of the season.

The Steelers tacked on a field goal in the final minute of the half.

The Steelers played without safety Troy Polamalu, who missed his second straight game with a knee injury. Cornerback Ike Taylor was also made inactive, forcing Pittsburgh to send out a patchwork secondary to try and slow down Green, who had a career-high 224 yards in the team's first meeting on Dec. 7.

Pittsburgh survived by throwing up 25 straight points in a 42-21 win then followed it up with two steady if not spectacular performances against Atlanta and Kansas City to clinch a playoff spot after a two-year absence. Yet the Steelers stressed all week they preferred to start the postseason at home and were hoping to get a shot at the tacky hat and T-shirts that come with a division title, items that have piled up in Cincinnati's lockers since Pittsburgh's last won the North in 2010.

The Bengals have led the division nearly all season. Pittsburgh's emphatic victory hardly rattled Cincinnati. The Bengals responded by drilling Johnny Manziel and the Browns and upsetting Peyton Manning and Denver at home on Monday night to earn a postseason berth for a fourth straight year for the first time in franchise history.


Online: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL


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