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Bengals @ Steelers

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STATS Writer
(AP) -- The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals have been two of the NFL's hottest teams since enduring bumpy stretches.


One will head into the playoffs on a winning note - with a home game awaiting them - after Sunday night's matchup in Pittsburgh, which serves as a de facto AFC North title game.


These teams are tied for the league's second-most wins since Week 8 with both going 7-2 in that span. Pittsburgh (10-5) started 3-3, blowing a fourth-quarter lead against Tampa Bay and suffering losses at Cleveland and Baltimore by a combined 41 points.


The Steelers, however, clinched their first playoff appearance since 2011 with last Sunday's 20-12 win over Kansas City. They're now a victory shy of their first four-game winning streak in a season since 2012.


"We knew we had the talent, and that it was just a case of us being consistent and putting it together," said Le'Veon Bell, who is tied for the league lead with eight touchdowns from scrimmage since Week 11. "It might not have looked like we were making progress, but we knew that if we kept doing what we were supposed to be doing, we'd be all right."


Cincinnati (10-4-1) followed a 3-0 start with an 0-2-1 stretch that included 26- and 27-point losses to New England and Indianapolis.


The Bengals have since found their footing, clinching a fourth straight playoff berth with Monday's 37-28 win over Denver on Monday night. They also bucked the trend of poor prime-time performances after entering with a 2-6 record in night games since 2011, including two blowout losses earlier this year.


Cincinnati can set a franchise record with a fifth straight road win.


"We answered a lot of questions, especially on this Monday night thing," defensive tackle Domata Peko told the team's official website. "Everybody was talking about it. We kept it in-house and just got it done. We're just getting started."


The Bengals would clinch a home playoff game with a win or a tie and are still in play for the AFC's No. 2 seed, though they would need the Broncos to lose to Oakland. Pittsburgh will be playing on wild-card weekend regardless of the result but can avoid traveling with a victory.


The Steelers already have two more wins than they had in each of the past two seasons and are seven points shy of the single-season club record of 416 from 1979. They weren't necessarily celebrating the end of their brief postseason drought, however.


"We're going to treat that like a playoff game like we've had the last three weeks," said Ben Roethlisberger, who is one TD shy of becoming the 18th quarterback to throw for 250. "We still have work to do."


Pittsburgh has only trailed for five minutes since going ahead of Cincinnati with a 25-point, fourth-quarter outburst in a 42-21 road win Dec. 7. Bell recorded 235 yards from scrimmage and three TDs, while the Bengals were limited to 86 yards on 21 carries. The Steelers are limiting opponents to 99.3 rushing yards per game, sixth-best in the NFL.


Cincinnati has bounced back with its first back-to-back, 200-plus yard rushing performances since 2003. Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard combined for 227 yards on 40 carries in a 30-0 win at Cleveland on Dec. 14, then Hill ran 22 times for 147 yards against the Broncos' second-ranked run defense. He joined Eric Dickerson and Curtis Martin as the only rookies to run for 140-plus four times and ranks second among running backs this season with 5.2 yards per carry.


The ground game has the Bengals confident that they can make a deeper playoff run after being one-and-done each of the last three seasons. They rank fifth in the NFL with 135.4 rushing yards per game after finishing no better than 18th in the last three years.


"We just have a new attitude," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "The running game has really sparked kind of a feistiness, a will to make something happen for us. At times, we haven't had that, for whatever reason."


The ground game may need to be particularly good if the passing attack is off a bit after Andy Dalton missed practice time this week due to the flu. The illness also has caused tight end Jermaine Gresham to miss practice along with defensive backs Terence Newman and Reggie Nelson.


The Bengals expect Dalton to be fully recovered by game day.


"It's always a big deal when you don't have your quarterback at practice," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said. "Again, it's also not good if the guy's sick and can't practice."


Pittsburgh's passing attack, second in the league at 300.5 yards per game, had its way in the first meeting as Roethlisberger was 25 of 39 for 350 yards and three TDs. The Bengals have since held two opponents to a combined 50.6 passer rating and picked off Peyton Manning four times.


Cincinnati's A.J. Green, who caught 11 passes for a career-high 224 yards against the Steelers, is expected to play after suffering a bruised right biceps Monday. Green, who was held without a catch for the second time in his career, has averaged 98.7 receiving yards in three games at Pittsburgh.


Antonio Brown is two catches shy of eclipsing Herman Moore and Wes Welker's shared mark (123) for the second-highest single-season total in league history.


A Bengals win would mark the third consecutive season series split.


Source: Hosted.Stats.com

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A.J. Green (biceps) is active for Sunday night's Week 17 game against the Steelers.

Green was fully expected to play after being listed as probable, but is dealing with a "badly" bruised biceps and will be at less than 100 percent.
The Bengals inactives are CB Terence Newman, DT Devon Still, QB A.J. McCarron, WR Greg Little, OL T.J. Johnson, WR James Wright, and OL Tanner Hawkinson.





Steelers SS Troy Polamalu is inactive for Sunday night's Week 17 game against the Bengals.

Polamalu was listed as questionable, but will miss his second straight game. He should have a good chance at returning for the playoffs.
The rest of the Steelers inactives are CB Ike Taylor, WR Justin Brown, QB Landry Jones, DE Clifton Geathers, OL Chris Hubbard, and TE Michael Palmer.

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A hyper-extended knee... dodged a bullet there! I hope Bell comes back soon.


AFC NORTH CHAMPS! Never saw this coming! What a season!

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