Bengals 38, Steelers 31

-- After 15 folly filled years, the Cincinnati Bengals proved they belong among the best.

The Bengals went into Pittsburgh in December, stood up to the team they rarely beat and all but secured their first division championship in 15 years, riding Carson Palmer's three touchdown passes and a defense that forced four more turnovers in a 38-31 victory over the Steelers on Sunday.

Rudi Johnson ran for Cincinnati's final two scores, one after a 94-yard Tab Perry kickoff return and the other following Ben Roethlisberger's third and most costly interception, as the Bengals (9-3) seized a two-game lead in the AFC North with four games to play.

The Steelers (7-5) got a gutsy effort from Roethlisberger (29 of 41, 386 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions) despite a possible fractured right thumb, but dropped their third in a row and now are in danger of not making the playoffs a year after going 15-1.

That's how pivotal this game was for both teams -- if the Steelers had won, they would have effectively been in the division lead by virtue of tiebreakers, but now they face an uphill climb to get in as a wild card.

The Bengals came into their biggest game in 15 years with the division lead despite losing convincingly to Pittsburgh at home 27-13 on Oct. 23. And no team has beaten up on the Bengals like the Steelers, who were 20-7 against them under Coach Bill Cowher.

But even on a day the Bengals seemingly had everything going against them -- the crowd, the cold, nasty weather and an inspired game by a badly injured Roethlisberger -- they responded like good teams are supposed to do.

With Roethlisberger passing better than he has all season despite a bruised thumb that was encased in a splint and covered by a glove, the Bengals came back every time Pittsburgh scored in a game that was unexpectedly high scoring.

The Steelers led 7-0 and 14-7 and also tied it at 24 after trailing 24-17, but the Bengals -- assuring themselves of their first winning season since 1990 -- repeatedly answered, twice scoring touchdowns within four plays of getting the ball back.

Palmer, who said he felt an urgency to beat the Steelers after losing his first three starts against them, threw scoring passes of 43 and six yards to T.J. Houshmandzadeh and one yard to Reggie Kelly. The six-yarder to Houshmandzadeh put the Bengals up 21-14 midway through the second quarter and followed linebacker Brian Simmons's interception of a wobbly Roethlisberger pass.

Roethlisberger, who returned for a 26-7 loss in Indianapolis on Nov. 28 after missing three games following knee surgery, threw for more than 300 yards for only the second time in his 21-game starting career.