PITTSBURGH (AP) - They've beaten the Steelers and Ravens twice apiece.
The AFC North is theirs to win.
For 20 years, the Cincinnati Bengals experienced almost nothing but losing, and now they keep winning and winning. What's even more remarkable is how they're winning. They missed a field goal, missed an extra point, kept missing chances to put the rival Steelers away, four times settling for field goals after driving inside the 20.
Somehow, after not letting the Steelers gain a single yard on their final possession, the Bengals were 18-12 winners Sunday over the team that usually beats them like no other. The Bengals also own first place in the AFC North - and, because they've swept the season series for the first time since 1998, their lead over Pittsburgh effectively is two games with seven to play.
All season long, the question has been: Are the Bengals for real? Maybe this answers that.
"It feels so good," Brandon Johnson said. "Five-and-0 in the division. I've never experienced anything like this."
He's not alone. Normally, the Bengals don't need to find ways to lose, losing seems to find them - this is a team, after all, that has been to the playoffs once since 1990. Even then, they lost to the Steelers at home in a wild-card game in January 2006. This time, it was different. Maybe because this team looks to be different, too.
"We expected to win," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "We knew it was going to be a struggle."
It was, too. The only difference from most Bengals-Steelers games was it was a struggle for both teams. Each team kicked four field goals. The Steelers gained 226 yards, the Bengals 218. Cincinnati was 4 of 14 on third downs, Pittsburgh 3 of 15. No running back for either team ran for more than 36 yards. The Steelers never got into an offensive rhythm after scoring at least 27 points during each of five consecutive victories, with Ben Roethlisberger held to 174 yards on 40 attempts while being sacked four times. They also played all but the opening series without star safety Troy Polamalu, who reinjured his left knee.
What proved to be the difference was a game-altering play by one of the game's least-experienced players - Bengals sixth-round draft choice Bernard Scott's 96-yard kickoff return touchdown late in the first quarter on only the third such return of his NFL career.
"I just picked it up and tried to go back to where the return side was," Scott said. "I tried to make a play - and just ran it into the end zone."
By doing so, he exposed the Super Bowl champions' most glaring weakness. The Steelers gave up a kickoff return touchdown for the third consecutive home game, with Scott following up TDs by Minnesota's Percy Harvin and Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs. The Steelers have permitted only 11 touchdowns defensively, but seven scores on various types of returns. Coach Mike Tomlin appears to be long since past frustration.
"I'm open to all considerations at this point," he said. "Let's be honest, we've had three returned on us, haven't we? I'd put myself out there if I thought I could do the job."
What surprised Scott was being out there during the Bengals' final drive, when they ran off four critical minutes leading up to Shayne Graham's fourth field goal, a 43-yarder with 1:56 remaining. Scott gained 19 yards on his first three carries while subbing for the injured Cedric Benson, who came in as the NFL's No. 2 rusher only to sit out the second half with an apparently not-serious hip injury.
"I just go out every week and prepare like I'm the starter," Scott said.
The Bengals also keep going out every week like they're a first-place team. They've got the Raiders (2-7), Browns (1-7) and Lions (1-8) up next and, as even the Steelers concede, a clear path to the playoffs unless they collapse.
"They're clearly the best team in the division," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said.
To Palmer, that's exactly what he doesn't want to hear. "It's scary because everybody's going to be patting us on the back, telling us how good we are," Palmer said. "We're not good enough to win the Super Bowl right now. We have a long way to go. We're not good enough to make a dominant playoff run, we have a long way to go."
Only not nearly as far as they usually do. This is a team that was 4-11-1 a season ago, yet is 4-0 against the two teams that played for the AFC championship last season, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Before Sunday, the Bengals had won in Pittsburgh only 13 times in 40 seasons.
"It's hard to really describe the feeling, when you've been through so many times when you're leaving this stadium and you're holding your head low from losing the game," Graham said. First-place Cincinnati Bengals. For the Steelers, this might require some adjustment.
"We still got to find a way to get to the playoffs," cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "We have enough veteran guys to get to that point. We're chasing Cincinnati, and hopefully we get to see them again."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)