Here's how excited the Cincinnati Bengals are about Sunday's oh-so-pivotal AFC North game in Pittsburgh: Even the motor-mouthed Chad Johnson is twirling a Terrible Towel.

"I love Pittsburgh," said Johnson, who leads all AFC receivers in catches and, it would seem, excessive self-promotion. "I've always had a Terrible Towel. I've always been a fan of the Steelers."

Johnson's comments were in jest, of course, although he has been flaunting a yellow Terrible Towel in the Bengals' locker room. But his enthusiasm for playing in the biggest Bengals-Steelers game in December in 30 years is obvious.

And for good reason -- usually, by now, the Steelers are mapping their plans for the playoffs and the Bengals are mapping their route home after another failed season. This season is different, and it's evident in the standings.

Instead of being chased, the Steelers (7-4) -- division winners in 2001, 2002 and 2004 -- are chasing the Bengals (8-3), who are one victory from their first winning season since 1990. That's 14 seasons of futility, one of the longest such streaks in modern-day NFL history.

Since the All-America Conference merged into the NFL in 1950, only the Saints (20 seasons) and the Buccaneers (14 seasons) have surpassed or matched the Bengals' run of losing. Now, that seemingly endless streak could be near its end, and what better way to do so than against the opponent that beats them like no other?

If the Bengals win, the division race could be effectively over, with Cincinnati owning a two-game lead with four games to play. However, should the Steelers beat the Bengals for the 10th time in 12 games, the Steelers would regain a tie for the lead and, by virtue of beating the Bengals twice this season, would own the tiebreaker.

"I think this is the one big team in our way that we need to beat in order to get us to that next level to where we can play with anybody," Johnson said. "Until we beat somebody who has been consistently winning like they have . . . "

That, perhaps, is the Bengals' most formidable obstacle in their biggest game since the days of Sam Wyche and Ickey Woods -- Pittsburgh's long-standing ability to dominate them, and the Steelers' confidence they can do it again.

Steelers coach Bill Cowher is 20-7 against Cincinnati, his best record against any club. And the Steelers already manhandled the Bengals this season, running for 221 yards in a 27-13 victory on Oct. 23 in Cincinnati. The Steelers ran so effectively, with Willie Parker gaining 131 yards, that Ben Roethlisberger threw only 14 passes.

However, the Steelers haven't played that well since, rushing for only 156 yards combined in losing their last two games to the Ravens and Colts. Parker hasn't come close to another 100-yard game, and the Steelers are trying to fight off numerous injuries.

Roethlisberger, who missed four games with knee injuries, has a painful right thumb, and left tackle Marvel Smith (ankle) won't play. That means rookie Trai Essex will make his only his second career start as Roethlisberger's blind side protector.

Still, despite losing successive games for the first time since 2003, defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen said the Steelers haven't lost any confidence -- not now, with the Bengals coming to town.

"Oh, no no, certainly not," he said. "We've lost four games, two in overtime and one on a last-second field goal. And we lost to the Indianapolis Colts in a hard environment, and that's the facts. Who's panicking? C'mon, man, we've lost four games. We're the Pittsburgh Steelers. We win in December."

A year ago, the Steelers were 4-0 and the Bengals were 2-2 in December. However, there has been no comparable Bengals-Steelers game of such importance in December since 1975, when the Steelers effectively clinched the AFC Central by beating the Bengals 35-14 on Dec. 13 in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers (12-2) would go on to win the second of their four Super Bowl titles in six years, while the Bengals (11-3) lost at Oakland 31-28 in a divisional playoff game. Of the Bengals' three regular-season losses that year, two were to Pittsburgh.

To win today, these Bengals need better production than they got in the earlier game against Pittsburgh from quarterback Carson Palmer (227 yards, two interceptions) and AFC receiving leader Johnson (four catches), who was controlled mostly by cornerback Ike Taylor before making a 47-yard catch late in the game.

"We didn't have a good enough mind-set going into the Pittsburgh game, thinking you can just go and play ball," right tackle Willie Anderson said. "It's not a day in the park playing catch. It's a fight."

One that Palmer has yet to win against the Steelers; he is 0-3, with some of his worst games statistically since becoming the Bengals' starter.

"With all the stuff that's going on in this game and the division implications of it, it's a game we need to win," Palmer said. "It's a game I need to win."

For the Steelers, it's a chance to save a season that was going as expected until the two recent losses. If they win today, they control their destiny in the division. Lose, and they might not make the playoffs.

"This is our season. We've got to win this game," Roethlisberger said. "We know how big it is and how important it is for us, that's why we're going to go out and play our best football."

Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher, talks with Cincinnati's Chad Johnson after the Steelers won 27-13 in October. Today, the 8-3 Bengals face them again.