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An AFC North showdown that includes Bengals?

BARRY WILNER
AP Football Writer

What’s old hat for the Pittsburgh Steelers is new world for the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Steelers are accustomed to playing games for first place in the AFC North. They just aren’t used to having the Bengals as the opponent. Nor is Cincinnati acclimated to such heights.

Yet if the Bengals win at Heinz Field on Sunday, they will take a stranglehold on the division after having swept the Super Bowl champions.

And they believe they have the offense and, in particular, the defense to do it.

“I think Baltimore and Pittsburgh have set the tone for the AFC North and were the ones to come up with the formula, which is good solid defense, run the football and control the field-position game,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “I think that is something we have turned into.”

The Bengals also have specialized in late-game rallies, including coming up with most of the big plays in 23-20 home victory over Pittsburgh – Cincinnati’s first at Paul Brown Stadium against the Steelers in nine tries.

That was Pittsburgh’s second straight loss. Guess what: The Steelers have won five in a row since. They’ve been particularly impressive against the Vikings and Broncos, two of the elite teams in the season’s first half.

Don’t look for the Steelers to flinch. That means the Bengals will have to ignore all those Terrible Towels and take this game away from James Harrison, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward and Mike Tomlin.

Also Sunday, it’s New England at Indianapolis in what has become almost an annual high-profile matchup; New Orleans at St. Louis; Dallas at Green Bay; Philadelphia at San Diego; Denver at Washington; Seattle at Arizona; Detroit at Minnesota; Atlanta at Carolina; Jacksonville at the New York Jets; Buffalo at Tennessee; Tampa Bay at Miami; and Kansas City at Oakland.

Baltimore visits Cleveland on Monday night.

The weekend began with Chicago at San Francisco on Thursday night.

Off this week are Houston and the New York Giants, the final byes for the season.

New England (6-2) at Indianapolis (8-0)

If it seems these two meet every year, well, they have played each season since 2003 and also met in the playoffs three of four Januarys. The tally since 2003: New England 5, Indy 4.

And if it seems as if it’s always a feature attraction, well, it usually lands on national TV.

And why not? This would be great entertainment even if the Colts weren’t unbeaten and the Patriots weren’t revving it up since a mediocre first month.

Peyton Manning has the look of an MVP. How can we tell? Hey, he’s already won three of them and he’s performing at that level.

Tom Brady is starting to resemble the quarterback against whom all winners are measured.

Both are surrounded by supreme talent, and both have defenses that are more than complementing the offenses.

The one added element: Tony Dungy retired as Colts coach and successor Jim Caldwell has the best record for a rookie coach since 1931. Now he gets to match wits with Bill Belichick.

New Orleans (8-0) at St. Louis (1-7)

The Saints have looked beatable the last three weeks, yet remain spotless. This doesn’t appear to be the spot where their first defeat comes, even if the Rams won for the first time two weeks ago, then got a bye.

Drew Brees, the league’s top-rated passer (106.1) faces the No. 28 defense with all his key personnel healthy. Rams fans who don’t want to show up to watch their team might want to take in Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas, Jeremy Shockey, Reggie Bush and company.

Dallas (6-2) at Green Bay (4-4)

Is the Pack still smarting from the two beatdowns by Brett Favre and the Vikings? Sure looked that way last week at Tampa, where the Buccaneers rallied to beat Green Bay for their first victory.

“You’ve got to go on and move forward, go on to the next game,” wide receiver Greg Jennings said. “If you let a loss like that linger, it will affect you into the next week. I don’t think that’s what happened. We just went down there and didn’t get the job done, especially in that fourth quarter.”

If Green Bay doesn’t find a way to protect Aaron Rodgers (trapped an astounding 37 times already), any wild-card aspirations will be sacked, too.

Dallas is among the hottest teams in the NFL with four consecutive wins as the offense has awakened and the pass rush has surged. Which means: Watch out, Aaron!

Philadelphia (5-3) at San Diego (5-3)

What to make of the Eagles? Or the Chargers?

The Eagles can look like world-beaters one week, such as against the Giants in a 40-17 romp to begin the month. Or they can get beaten up physically, as in last week’s loss to Dallas.

The Chargers struggled to take down Oakland two weeks ago and were about to fall at the Meadowlands until the Giants got conservative in the final minutes. Now, San Diego has won three straight, yet still doesn’t have the aura of a championship contender.

A win here could change that perception.

Denver (6-2) at Washington (2-6)

Denver needs to end a two-game slide right here or else its sensational early season comes into serious question. Suddenly, the Broncos have the Chargers right behind them in the AFC West and a defense that often was dominant looked pedestrian in the second half against the Steelers.

Then again, the Redskins’ offense might not have anyone who could start for Pittsburgh – or maybe 20 other teams. Washington is minus-8 in turnover differential, meaning Champ Bailey and Andre’ Goodman could have some fun in D.C. even if the Redskins rank first in pass defense.

Seattle (3-5) at Arizona (5-3)

In a near-total reversal, the Cardinals have been dynamic on the road (4-0) and so-so at home.

“After 2 1/2 years of being here and just getting killed for not being any good on the road, it’s certainly nice to play better on the road,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “Now, we have to play better at home. If we can do that, maybe we are on to something.”

Seattle isn’t on to much of anything this year as injuries have ravaged the lineup.

Detroit (1-7) at Minnesota (7-1)

Hey, Brett, if you want extra time off following last weekend’s bye, the Vikings probably can handle this one without you.

Minnesota has been as impressive as any team, Favre has looked like he did in his prime, Adrian Peterson is the game’s best running back, and the receiving corps gets better all the time. Only the defense has lagged behind, yet the Vikes are cruising in the NFC North.

The Lions? They blew a 17-0 lead and lost at Seattle. Enough said.

Atlanta (5-3) at Carolina (3-5)

Carolina is one of the league’s better also-rans, for what that’s worth. The Panthers played the Saints very tough in New Orleans last week, but also lost key linebacker Thomas Davis with a wrecked knee.

DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are a sweet running tandem and the Falcons struggled to stop the rush. Of course, they also have their own standout back in Michael Turner, who is seventh in the league, two spots behind Williams.

Baltimore (4-4) at Cleveland (1-7) Monday

With two losses to Cincinnati, the Ravens are a long shot for any divisional hopes, even though they still have a pair of matchups with the Steelers. Their defense no longer sets the tempo in games, although EVERY defense seems to do that against chaotic Cleveland.

The Browns come off a bye and have not been competitive in their last three games. Coach Eric Mangini is turning back to Brady Quinn at quarterback. Is Brett Ratliff next up?

Jacksonville (4-4) at N.Y. Jets (4-4)

The Jets lead the league in rushing and the Jags are vulnerable. That should mean lots of work for Thomas Jones, eighth in yardage on the ground (704). New York must take the spotlight off rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez and let him grow, and Jones provides a great alternative.

Two spots ahead of Jones in league rushing is Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew, who leads the NFL with 11 touchdowns. He’s been the brightest spot in Jacksonville’s inconsistent season.

Buffalo (3-5) at Tennessee (2-6)

With Vince Young at QB, the Titans are 2-0. Most of the credit should go to Chris Johnson, who leads the NFL in rushing with 959 yards, just short of a 2,000-yard pace, and a superb 6.7-yard rushing average. While the Titans’ playoff hopes are long gone, a respectable recovery is within grasp.

Trent Edwards didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard before suffering a concussion that sidelined him the last two games. He’ll start, but could be without Terrell Owens (strained hip). Not that T.O. has done much for the Bills.

Tampa Bay (1-7) at Miami (3-5)

You want the Battle for Florida? Try Gators vs. Hurricanes.

The Bucs got their first win only last week, stunning Green Bay behind top pick Josh Freeman’s three TD passes in his starting debut. The Bucs also made big plays on defense and special teams, including a blocked punt for a touchdown.

Miami was mediocre against the Jets two weeks ago and won, then mediocre at New England and lost. Mediocre should be enough for the Dolphins this time.

Kansas City (1-7) at Oakland (2-6)

Hardly the classic matchup this once was, and surely not a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the American Football League, where these teams originated. The guys who did the founding were called “The Foolish Club.” Wouldn’t be a stretch to apply that name to the Chiefs and Raiders lately.