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Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010

CINCINNATI -- So, how are the Super Bowl-or-bust Steelers looking these days?

On Monday night, through three quarters, coach Mike Tomlin's team passed almost every test against the Bengals. They made big plays on special teams, and the offense converted two turnovers and a blocked punt into 17 first-half points.

They seemingly rubbed it in when wide receiver Antwaan Randle El threw a long touchdown pass to Mike Wallace on the first play of the fourth quarter. It evoked memories of Randle El's touchdown pass to Hines Ward in Super Bowl XL.

Then, in the final 15 minutes, the Steelers gave up two touchdowns, and the Bengals were 12 yards away from competing a stunning comeback from a 20-point deficit. The defense stiffened, and the Steelers held on for a 27-21 win at Paul Brown Stadium.

In a game that Bengals coach Marvin Lewis probably needed to help retain his job in the final year of his contract, the Steelers did the McDonald native no favors while rolling up a 27-7 lead. Lewis, though, nearly had the last laugh.

With a 6-2 record, the Steelers have just as good a shot as the Ravens, the Patriots and the Jets of coming out of the AFC.

"This reminds me of the '08 team when we won the Super Bowl," defensive end Nick Eason said. "We won a lot of games at the last minute. That's what good teams do."

You don't need great talent to win in the NFL. Talent is equally dispersed around the league.

Great teams win titles. The Steelers have won two Super Bowls since 2005 -- more than any team.

According to nose tackle Casey Hampton, the Steelers routinely make big plays during crunch time.

"It was never a question we were going to win," Hampton said. "We've just got to do a better job of finishing. We play close games, and we win close games. That's what makes us a tough team, because we're accustomed to playing tough games all the time."

The Steelers are winning despite not featuring a powerful running game, and their passing attack still is under construction. Their special teams are better than last year, even producing a fumble recovery on the opening kickoff against the Bengals, but Al Everest's unit still is susceptible to the big play. Only the defense offers consistency.

To their credit, the Steelers -- beat-up offensive line and all -- remained committed to the run even when it wasn't working last night. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hung in the pocket and made tough throws.

The offensive line was courtesy of Backups R Us, thanks to injuries during the game to starters Maurkice Pouncey and Chris Kemoeatu. Max Starks missed a couple of series early before returning to action and then left again in the second half with a neck injury.

Keep an eye on backups Doug Legursky and Jonathan Scott. The immediate future of the offensive line could hinge on their readiness to step in while stepping up their level of performance.

Defensively, the Steelers continued with their bend-but-don't-break philosophy that has been prevalent this season.

Still, these are the Steelers, and we did say their offense remains a work in progress. Looking to take some time off the clock, Roethlisberger instead was intercepted. A roughing-the-passer penalty against Hampton followed by a pass interference call against Ike Taylor led to Cedric Benson's 1-yard touchdown run and a 27-21 Steelers lead with 9:05 remaining.

This was a time for the Steelers to show their mettle. How they did it was an eye-opener because they were faced with the same situation a year ago in a 23-20 loss to the Bengals on a late touchdown pass, also at Paul Brown Stadium.

This time, Taylor and linebacker James Harrison combined to strip the ball loose from wide receiver Jordan Shipley on fourth-and-5 from the Steelers' 12 for an incompletion with less than a minute to play.

"We won. I don't care how close it was," Taylor said. "It's those times when you've got to stand up as a defense. That's what we did."

That more than anything described the Steelers' approach last night. Even when Jeff Reed missed a field goal that would have extended the lead to nine points, there still belief the defense would hold up its end.

It did. Barely.

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