Bengals earn contender status

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker

CINCINNATI -- The postgame atmosphere at Paul Brown Stadium was buzzing Sunday night.

There were smiles, screaming fans, numerous high fives, and yes, plenty of “Who Dey!” chants.

It is cool to be a Cincinnati Bengal again.

Much of the pain from nearly two decades filled with losing and heartache was washed away for Cincinnati on Sunday when the Bengals pulled off a thrilling, 23-20 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

The joy permeated throughout the Bengals’ locker room. Players who talked for months -- whether it was on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” or through the media -- about believing in the team finally put together tangible evidence on the field.

Cincinnati overcame an 11-point deficit to the usually efficient Steelers in the fourth quarter. With Pittsburgh’s long history of closing out games and the Bengals’ history of losing, the outlook was bleak for the home team.

But these aren’t your father’s Bengals.

Heck, these aren’t even your older sibling’s Bengals from a year or two ago.

Cincinnati outclassed Pittsburgh in the fourth quarter with 14 unanswered points to pull off the nail-biter and place themselves among the early contenders in the AFC. In the past seven days, the Bengals (2-1) have taken hard-fought victories over the Steelers and Green Bay Packers.

“If you can’t see how much heart we have, you got to be blind,” Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. “They were winning by a lot, and to see how we just kept on fighting to get the win.

“This is big. These are the steps that we’ve been trying to take to get over that hump.”

The Bengals finally climbed “Mt. Pittsburgh” and ended several longstanding streaks.

Pittsburgh’s string of eight straight victories in Cincinnati: Gone.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s undefeated record in the state of Ohio: Kaput.

Pittsburgh’s undefeated run through the AFC North that started last season also came to an end, thanks to the upstart Bengals.

“Priceless!” Cincinnati offensive guard Bobbie Williams said of the victory.

Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer put together one of the biggest scoring drives of his career during the final five minutes. He led the Bengals 71 yards in 16 plays, culminating in a 4-yard touchdown throw to receiver Andre Caldwell in the final seconds.

According to receiver Chad Ochocinco, Palmer had a Joe Montana moment from Super Bowl XXIII. Before the first play of the series and down five points, the quarterback told his offense in the huddle that the Bengals were going for a two-point conversion “when we score.”

“And we were nowhere near the goal line,” Ochocinco said of Palmer’s confident gesture.

Palmer’s confidence showed as he completed seven passes for 59 yards on the final drive. He also converted two fourth-down situations that could’ve ended the game in Pittsburgh’s favor. The second fourth-down conversion came on an 11-yard reception by running back Brian Leonard on fourth-and-10 with 36 seconds left in the game. The Bengals scored the game-winning touchdown two plays later.

It was the type of clutch performance that has eluded the Bengals in the past, particularly against division rival Pittsburgh.

“The Bengals of old would have laid down,” Ochocinco said. “We would have been rattled.”

On the other sideline, the Steelers now face some serious questions after uncharacteristically blowing back-to-back fourth-quarter leads to Cincinnati and the Chicago Bears.

Is the inability to close out games a product Pittsburgh missing one of its top players, Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu? Or is there something bigger contributing to the Steelers’ surprising 1-2 start?

Things were going well for the defending champs Sunday until the second half. Roethlisberger threw a pick-six to get Cincinnati back in the game. Receiver Limas Sweed also dropped a potential touchdown catch and kicker Jeff Reed missed his third field goal in two games.

All of these lapses proved costly in a closely contested division game.

“We have some work to do,” a disappointed Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “We need to finish football games better. That’s the mark of a champion, and that’s not us at this point.”

It’s early. But through three weeks the Baltimore Ravens (3-0) are the class of the AFC North through September and the surprising Bengals -- not the Steelers -- find themselves only one game behind.

“If not for that fluke play against the Denver Broncos, who knows?” Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers said.

That’s an interesting thought to say the least.

And after Sunday’s marquee win, the Bengals are an interesting team to look out for in 2009.