CINCINNATI -- There were flashbacks to 2009 for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night.
"The whole fourth quarter," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said. "It was the same thing as last year and the same scenario."
The reigning AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals were on fire late and driving against Pittsburgh's defense. A year ago, the Steelers blew several fourth-quarter leads and, likewise, the Bengals had several come-from-behind victories, which led to Cincinnati making the playoffs and Pittsburgh watching from home in January.
But this clearly isn't 2009.
Pittsburgh's defense stepped up in the clutch and the Bengals folded on their final drive in the Steelers' 27-21 victory. After leading by 20 points, Pittsburgh avoided the largest fourth-quarter collapse in team history to improve to 6-2. Bengals rookie receiver Jordan Shipley had the ball knocked out by linebacker James Harrison on fourth down with 40 seconds left to seal the game.
As the ball bounced on the ground, the Steelers celebrated and Cincinnati's dim playoff hopes came crashing down in what has been one of the most underachieving seasons in franchise history.
The final play was representative of both teams' seasons as the Steelers finished and the Bengals again were a couple plays short.
"We've seen that horror flick before," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, referring to last season. "I like this ending a little better."
Noted Bengals coach Marvin Lewis: "It's a disappointing game to lose, there's no other way around it."
Both teams came into the season with high expectations. The Bengals swept the division a year ago and lost in the wild-card round, and with additions such as Shipley and receiver Terrell Owens (10 catches, 141 yards, two touchdowns), they were expecting great things in 2010.
The Steelers were coming off a rare non-playoff season in which they failed to defend their Super Bowl title. Injuries and a few missed opportunities cost them 2009. But after starting 3-1 during quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's suspension, the bar was raised again in Pittsburgh.
There was a lot of back-and-forth trash talk between the old guard (Steelers) and new guard (Bengals) this offseason. Most of it was generated by Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco, who compared the Steelers to women on his dating reality show and told me "who gives a [expletive] about the Steelers" when informed in training camp Pittsburgh players weren't happy about it.
Ochocinco was a nonfactor Monday night, catching just one pass for 15 yards. In the third quarter, he was so frustrated with his lack of production that he slammed the ball and got a delay of game penalty. Ochocinco also was temporarily benched by Lewis in the second half, adding to his poor night.
"You realize that karma is something that works both ways," Starks said of Ochocinco. "It's a thin line between cocky and confident, and when you sometimes step over that reality comes into play."
The Steelers are not perfect. But 6-2 counts for an elite team in this year's NFL. Pittsburgh has as good a shot as anyone to win the Super Bowl despite holes being exposed the past few games. For the third straight week, the Steelers allowed a team to score more than 20 points.
"As I sit here right now, it's not a concern at all because we won," Tomlin said. "When we get back home and watch film, I might be concerned."
As Starks got dressed before exiting the visiting locker room, I mentioned that it looks like it will be the Ravens and Steelers battling for a division title in the second half of the season.
"Yup," Starks said with a smile. "Things are back to normal in the AFC North."
The Steelers' final story is yet to be told. They are moving on to bigger and better things, which includes another postseason run and a chance at another title.
But the 2010 season is already in the books for the disappointing Bengals. Their dreams of having a successful year were dealt a final blow by Pittsburgh, as Cincinnati likely will fail to post back-to-back winning records for the 29th consecutive season.