Bengals can clinch AFC North title with win over Steelers

Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI (AP) – Back home after a blowout win in Cleveland, the Bengals got even more pleasing news. There’s more than just the AFC North title at their fingertips.

The Bengals put themselves on the verge of a division title Sunday when they beat the Cleveland Browns 37-3. The win left them 10-2 for the first time since 1975 with a three-game lead over Pittsburgh.

They host the Steelers (7-5) on Sunday with a chance to wrap up their second division title in three years. The Steelers won it last season.

“If you’re going to be AFC North champs, it’s probably fitting that you have to beat them to do that,” coach Marvin Lewis said on Monday.

What happened on Sunday left the Bengals thinking even more big-picture.

The Patriots lost to the Eagles, costing them their edge for the AFC’s top seed. New England, Cincinnati and Denver are tied at 10-2.

The Bengals play at Denver on Monday Dec. 28, a game that could decide seeding.

Denver has already beaten New England, giving the Broncos the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Cincinnati has the three-way tiebreaker with the better record in AFC games and could get the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win at Denver. They won’t need any help if they win out.

“You’d rather have it that way than the other way,” quarterback Andy Dalton said on Monday. “So we know what we’re playing for. There’s a lot riding on these last four weeks.”

They’re in an unaccustomed place.

Leading up to the win in Cleveland, coordinator Hue Jackson asked the offensive players if they’d ever been on a 10-2 team in the NFL.

Only one player – Brandon Tate, who was with New England – raised his hand.

“This doesn’t happen all the time,” Jackson said. “So you’ve got to savor it. You can’t let it go. You’ve got to fight like hell to keep it and to keep that good feeling going. You don’t want it to end. None of us wants it to end. You can never forget that.”

The Bengals have hosted the AFC title game twice in their history, winning both times. They beat San Diego in one of the coldest games in NFL history during the 1981 season to reach their first Super Bowl in Pontiac, Michigan, where they lost to San Francisco.

During the 1988 season, they beat Buffalo to reach the Super Bowl in Miami, where they lost to Joe Montana and the 49ers again on a last-minute drive.

The Bengals are trying to get a favorable seed and a first-round bye that would leave them in better position to get their first playoff victory since the 1990 season. It’s the sixth-longest streak of postseason futility in NFL history.

Even the players who normally talk about taking everything one game at a time sense the bigger picture of what’s at stake. The first step is clinching the division.

“As you reach milestones, it gets harder,” Jackson said.

Notes: Lewis said DE Margus Hunt was active on Sunday because the Bengals needed his contributions on special teams. Hunt was active for only the fourth time this season. As the game turned into a blowout, he got in for 15 plays on defense. … Jackson didn’t mind RB Jeremy Hill jumping into the Dawg Pound to celebrate a touchdown on Sunday, saying it’s part of the energy that he brings to his game. “I am never going to muzzle Jeremy because I don’t want to,” Jackson said.

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