Bernard Scott scored the lone Bengals TD on a 96-yard kickoff return. (AP photo)
Updated: 4:10 p.m.
PITTSBURGH - Before the second biggest crowd in Heinz Field history, Sunday's AFC North showdown became a battle of field goals. The Bengals tied that battle (four to four) but won the one that counts as they walked off with an 18-12 victory that gives them a sweep of the season series with the Steelers and first place all alone in the AFC North with a 7-2 mark.
The victory was bittersweet, however, as the NFL's second-leading rusher, Cedric Benson, was slowed by a sore hip flexor that knocked him out of the game and he didn't appear for the second half.
Clinging to a 15-12 lead, the Bengals took over at their own 21 with 6:16 remaining. Three straight first downs chewed up more than four minutes off the clock and gave Cincinnati the ball at the Pittsburgh 30 with 2:13 left. After a one-yard loss by rookie running back Bernard Scott on first down quarterback Carson Palmer scrambled three yards to the 28 to put the Bengals in a third-and-eight situation with 2:06 left. An offsides penalty on Pittsburgh moved the ball five yards closer but Scott was stoned for a two-yard loss, bringing on Graham for a 43-yard field goal that was perfect and upped the Bengals lead to 18-12.
The Steelers took over on their own 33 after the ensuing kickoff, but four straight incompletions by the Steelers gave the Bengals the ball back and they kneeled on it to kill the clock and close out the victory.
With 7:54 left in the game, the only touchdown had been supplied by Scott's 96-yard kick return and the Bengals faced a third-and-three from the Steelers 17. The Bengals tried a shovel pass to running back Brian Leonard and it was half a yard short and they took Shayne Graham's 32-yard field with 7:29 left to take a 15-12 lead.
Palmer, struggling without Benson on a 18-for-30 day for 178 yards, heated up on a couple of underneath throws to Leonard and a 16-yard throw to wide receiver Laveranues Coles.
The Steelers Super Bowl champion offense was held to four field goals because of a Cincinnati defense that harassed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for four sacks and a couple of tipped balls. The Bengals forced Reed's fourth field goal, a 34-yarder with 11:30 left, courtesy of a holding call. Roethlisberger finished just 20-of-40 for 174 yards.
Palmer's 21-yard flip to Scott, Benson's replacement, as he was in the grasp of Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel, set up Graham's 32-yard field goal that gave the Bengals the 12-9 lead with 6:41 left in the third quarter. Keisel foiled Palmer's bid for a first down when he knocked down a pass headed to wide receiver ndre Caldwell on third down.
The Bengals pitched their third defensive stand in the red zone Sunday during the first half and Steelers kicker Jeff Reed put Pittsburgh ahead 9-6, on a 35-yard field goal with 12 seconds left.
The Bengals then used Graham's 23-yard field goal to tie it at 9 with 11:10 left in the third quarter off defensive end Frostee Rucker's 19-yard interception return. He caught a deflection off rookie cornerback Morgan Trent's blitz.
Late in the first half, after unblocked left end Robert Geathers dropped Roethlisberger for the Bengals' fourth sack of the half, Roethlisberger tried to hit Santonio Holmes on third down in the right corner. But leaping cornerback Johnathan Joseph seemed to get a finger on the ball as it whizzed past Holmes to force the field goal.
The killing play in that drive was Pittsburgh's longest play of the half, a 46-yard pass interference call on safety Chinedum Ndukwe covering Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace down the middle.
On the previous series on second down from the Bengals 8, cornerbacks Leon Hall and Trent defended Holmes in the back corner of the end on a ball Trent knocked away. Then defensive end Jon Fanene came up with his second sack to force Reed's kick.
The ineffectiveness of the Bengals offense kept giving the Steelers shots. Palmer didn't look nearly as sharp as he has the previous two weeks as he appeared to try and force some balls downfield. He tried five throws to wide receiver Chad Ochocinco but could only get one to him for 16 yards. Palmer was just 8-of-17 for 80 yards in the half and he was hampered by a running game that lost Benson briefly in the first half with a sore hip flexor.
When Benson came back late in the half, he was clearly hurting when he tried to accelerate on a sweep and left again with just 22 yards on seven carries.
The Bengals special teams went from heaven to hell in the time it took for Scott to complete a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and the extra point to get fouled up on a muffed snap by holder Kevin Huber as the Bengals raced to a 6-3 lead with 4:26 left in the first quarter.
It was the Bengals' fourth extra-point miss of the season, the first with new long snapper Clark Harris.
Scott popped the first Bengals kickoff for a touchdown since Glenn Holt took one back in Buffalo in 2007 when he caught the kick to his far right at about the 5. He took it to the middle and then made a vicious cutback and shot into the clear. At about midfield he cut back on Reed and then outran wide receiver Stefan Logan. Bengals wide receiver Quan Cosby finished off Logan as Scott stepped over the goal line.
On the ensuing kickoff the Bengals were called for an illegal formation when they didn't have enough players lined up outside the left hash mark, one of four special-teams penalties in the half. But the Bengals forced a punt with their second sack of the day, this one by blitzing middle linebacker Dhani Jones.
The Steelers apparently lost Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu with a knee injury on their first series when he was declared doubtful to return. Hall left briefly with an injured elbow and returned. But not before David Jones replaced Hall and forced a punt when he defended a pass a third-down pass over the middle to Holmes.
The NFL's two-best run defenses (Pittsburgh No. 1, Cincinnati No. 2) slogged away in the slugfest. With Bengals getting good pressure on Roethlisberger, Palmer struggled as the Bengals could only convert one of five third-down tries.
Graham's bid to become the second opposing kicker make a 50-yard field goal in Heinz Field history barely missed when his 50-yard try hit the right upright with 10:49 left in the first quarter.
The Steelers then responded with an 11-play drive highlighted by Roethlisberger's 15-yard scramble on third-and-13 that churned 6:06 and set up Reed's successful try, a 28-yarder that gave the Steelers a 3-0 lead 10 minutes into it.
Roethlisberger supplied the critical play, a 15-yard scramble on third-and-13 following a sack by defensive end Jon Fanene.
Palmer converted long passes to wide receivers Ochocino and Coles (a 12-yard lazer caught by a whisp before he went out of bounds) to set up the field goal.
PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals made it official Sunday and activated wide receiver Maurice Purify while putting down linebacker Keith Rivers and left guard Evan Mathis. Also inactive were three players who have been on the sidelines in all nine games, wide receiver Jerome Simpson, tight end Chase Coffman and right tackle Andre Smith.
Also down for the Bengals were fullback Fui Vakapuna and defensive tackle Orien Harris.
Heinz Field has been one of the more notoriously sloppy fields because it is mostly a grass surface used by the University of Pittsburgh and high school teams. With Pitt beating Notre Dame Saturday night, there were some very real concerns about the shape of the field.
As the Bengals worked on it it in pregame the consensus was that while it was a bit chewed up, it is in better shape than it has been the last two years the Bengals played here because it was dry. In 2007 there was a monsoon the week before, and last year there was a mix of snow and rain.
The Bengals took the field in their white jerseys and black pants, and they were hoping that .500 ensemble (10-10) would repeat history. Sunday marked just the fourth time in the last 30 years that both teams met with a winning record in the second half of the season. And in all three previous games, the Bengals ended up winning the division with wins in Pittsburgh: 1981, 1990 and 2005.
Steelers president Dan Rooney, the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, went through the chow line in the press room and ended up in a discussion with a Cincinnati reporter.
"You guys have a great team," he said, and when he was introduced to a Cincinnati newspaper reporter who "has never seen the Bengals lose to the Steelers," Rooney asked, "How many games have you seen? One?"
Asked if President Obama would be viewing Rooney said, "No, I'm sure he's tied up in Asia."
But there was a packed house swarming with black and gold watching the coin toss. Middle linebacker Dhani Jones called "Heads," and won it and the Bengals took the ball under cloudy skies with a 67-degree temperature. Rookie running back Bernard Scott dropped back to take the kickoff. Scott appeared to fake some sort of toss and took it the 30.