PITTSBURGH -- Carson Palmer talked all week about how former college teammate Troy Polamalu is the NFL's best defensive player. Then Palmer went out and helped make a strong argument that Polamalu is exactly that.
Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley returned interceptions for Pittsburgh's only touchdowns and the first-place Steelers sent Cincinnati to a franchise record-tying 10th consecutive defeat, winning 23-7 on Sunday.
The Steelers (10-3) couldn't get into the end zone on offense despite dominating the time of possession -- a 9 1/2-minute drive in the second half produced no scoring -- but it didn't matter as they closed in on a playoff spot by playing just well enough to beat the Bengals (2-11).
Palmer threw three interceptions, two to Polamalu, as Cincinnati matched the David Shula-coached 1993 Bengals by losing 10 consecutive games in the same season. The overall franchise record is 11 consecutive defeats from 1992-93.
The Steelers keep seeing Polamalu make play after play like these. Unfortunately for Palmer, he does, too.
"He has talent like no one else," safety Ryan Clark said. "He's just making amazing plays right now."
Last week, Polamalu chopped the ball away from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in the fourth quarter, leading to Ben Roethlisberger's decisive TD pass to running back Isaac Redman and a 13-10 victory that gave Pittsburgh the AFC North lead.
This time, Polamalu cut in front of intended receiver Terrell Owens to intercept Palmer's pass and return it 45 yards for a touchdown, tying it at 7 with 4 1/2 minutes left in the first half. Both of Polamalu's career regular-season interception return touchdowns are against Palmer, who roomed with Polamalu while at Southern Cal. Polamalu had the other in 2004.
"I was just doing my job," Polamalu said. "I just happened to be in the right position."
Palmer and Owens talked briefly on the bench about an apparently incorrectly run pass route. An unhappy Palmer walked away from Owens after seemingly not being happy with the explanation.
"I'm not sure what happened with our guys," Palmer said. "When they keep showing the highlights over and over again, that's going to be dejection. Right now, it's just frustration. I don't know if anybody has the words right now to describe what we're feeling as a team."
A lot of quarterbacks have the same feeling after being upstaged by Polamalu, who has helped lead the Steelers to four consecutive victories and an enviable position in the AFC playoff race.
"No one is playing as good as Troy Polamalu in football right now, in my opinion," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "When we need a play, he provides it."
The Steelers, up 13-7 after the long but unproductive drive that extended over much of the third quarter, sealed it with Woodley's 14-yard interception return early in the fourth quarter.
Polamalu also made an interception with two minutes remaining, his sixth of the season, after Cincinnati drove to the Steelers 16.
That pass also was intended for Owens, who came in needing only 39 yards to become only the third receiver in NFL history with 10 1,000-yard seasons but made only one catch for 22 yards.
"I was just out there running around," Owens said. "It wasn't until late in the game I got some looks. There's nothing I can do. ... I'm sick of losing."
Long before that, the Bengals drove 69 yards on their possession for Palmer's 1-yard scoring pass to Andrew Whitworth on a tackle-eligible play -- a drive kept going by Woodley's offside penalty. Whitworth is the first Bengals offensive lineman to catch a touchdown pass in 15 seasons.
Cincinnati's offense spent much of the rest of the game huddling along the sideline as Pittsburgh held the ball for 13:15 of the third quarter, even though leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall ended with a nondescript 66 yards on 18 carries.
The Steelers didn't get much out of all these drives, only three field goals by the perfect-so-far Shaun Suisham. He converted from the 23, 35 and 41. He is 9 for 9 with Pittsburgh.
"I think one drive we went 140 yards, we kept going back and forth and back and forth," Roethlisberger said of the 9 1/2-minute drive, which included three holding penalties. "It's not good enough because we have to score points. Field goals aren't good enough. Luckily our defense bailed us out."
Roethlisberger had an active if not entirely productive afternoon in a game played mostly in rain, although pregame forecasts of in-game snow and whipping winds proved inaccurate.
Roethlisberger, playing on a gimpy right foot and wearing a visor in the first half to protect his broken nose, took hits from three different defenders on one play before getting loose to complete a 9-yard pass to Mendenhall. He also improvised after a shotgun snap sailed high, scrambling for 13 yards to the 5 to set up Suisham's 23-yarder, which put Pittsburgh up 10-7 at the half.
Polamalu reinjured an ankle on his first interception, but stayed in the game. ... The Steelers have two touchdowns on their past 30 possessions. ... Roethlisberger had thrown three TD passes in each of his previous three home games. ... Palmer has thrown 10 interceptions in five games. ... Bengals S Chinedum Ndukwe (knee) didn't return after being hurt making a tackle in the second quarter. ... Pittsburgh still hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher this season. Cedric Benson had 19 yards on eight carries. ... The Steelers used a two-week road trip to resod Heinz Field's turf. ... The Steelers hadn't had two interception return touchdowns in a game since Dewayne Washington scored twice against Jacksonville in 1998. ... Steelers WR Hines Ward made eight catches for 115 yards.
- Walt Coleman