CINCINNATI — With a chance to make a statement, the Cincinnati Bengals backed down and went for a field goal. Their demur decision said it all.
Hines Ward caught a pair of touchdown passes, and the Pittsburgh Steelers turned Marvin Lewis' conservative coaching decision into the pivotal moment of a 24-13 victory Sunday, their seventh straight in Cincinnati.
From the top down, it was another case of down-the-river domination.
The Steelers (5-2) solidified their hold on first place in the AFC North and pushed the last-place Bengals to the precipice. The Bengals are 2-5 for the first time since 2004, Carson Palmer's first season as the starting quarterback.
Trace this one to the sideline.
The Steelers took control during the closing minutes of the first half, when the teams showed there's a big difference in how they define themselves.
Heading into the game, defensive captain John Thornton said the Bengals had to put on their "big boy pads" and match the Steelers' moxie. With a chance to do it, they flinched.
Trailing 14-3, the Bengals drove to a fourth-and-1 from just inside the 2-yard line with 2:16 left in the first half. They called a timeout to talk it over, then decided to kick a field goal rather than flex some muscle.
Shayne Graham's 20-yard kick had barely cleared the uprights when the stadium-record crowd of 66,188 started booing, an instant and emphatic second-guess.
Pittsburgh's response? A gutsy touchdown.
The Steelers drove to the Bengals' 1-yard line with 8 seconds to go, then gave the ball to Willie Parker, who had 126 yards overall. Parker dived into the end zone, popped up and flexed both arms in a muscleman pose.
His guys know how to flaunt it.
They also know how to count.
For the second straight game, the Bengals had trouble getting 11 players on defense. They had only 10 on the field for Ward's 21-yard touchdown catch — no defender was even close to the former Super Bowl MVP.
Ward, who missed two games this season with a knee injury, also had a diving 6-yard touchdown catch, his third of the season and the 61st of his career, trailing John Stallworth by two for the club record.
Ben Roethlisberger was 19-of-26 for 230 yards with one costly mistake, a forced interception at Cincinnati's 18-yard line midway through the third quarter. With their season on the line, the Bengals put together a 17-play drive culminating in T.J. Houshmandzadeh's 9-yard touchdown catch that made it 21-13.
Pittsburgh had another in-your-face response, draining the clock while driving to Jeff Reed's 40-yard field goal with 6:09 left. Ward had catches of 11 and 13 yards during the 11-play drive, and finished with eight catches for 88 yards.
Kenny Watson's fumble at Pittsburgh's 16-yard line with 3:16 left ended the Bengals' chances of an improbable comeback.