PITTSBURGH - Meaningful games in December are nothing new in Pittsburgh, where playoff pushes are an annual event. Not so much in Cincinnati, where the conversation usually turns to the NFL draft after Thanksgiving.
It's why normally reserved Bengals coach Marvin Lewis ditched the usual "one game at a time" mantra heading into today's rematch with the Steelers, who held off Cincinnati 24-17 on the road three weeks ago.
The surprising Bengals (7-4) trail Baltimore and Pittsburgh (8-3) by a game in the AFC North with five weeks to go. A loss would effectively end Cincinnati's bid for an unlikely division title. The way Lewis figures, no need to downplay the stakes.
"This is a big football game for us, no doubt about it," he said. "If we want to have an opportunity to win the AFC North, this is an important game for us. We can't fall another game behind at this point."
Neither, in truth, can the Steelers.
Though Pittsburgh is tied with the Ravens, Baltimore holds the tiebreaker after sweeping the season series. Any misstep puts the Steelers' hopes of a second straight division title and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs in serious jeopardy, and they know it.
"We felt like coming out of the bye we needed to go 6-0," wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "We got one down, we still got five to go."
The Steelers have won six of seven yet have a tendency to play to the level of their opponent. The team that beat the New England Patriots with relative ease the day before Halloween is the same one that struggled to put away reeling Kansas City 13-9 last week.
Pittsburgh isn't apologizing for winning ugly, though quarterback Ben Roethlisberger insists the offense needs to become more consistent. Wide receiver Mike Wallace dropped a pair of deep balls against the Chiefs that would have broken the game open while the running game continued to operate in sporadic bursts.
"It wasn't our best, but guys understand what time of year it is," Roethlisberger said. "I'd rather stand here and talk about an ugly win than a pretty loss."
So would the Bengals, though their spirited play against the defending AFC champions two weeks ago even in defeat signaled their hot start was no fluke. Cincinnati rallied from a 14-0 deficit to tie the game at 17 before wilting in the final minutes.
The game served as a litmus test for rookie quarterback Andy Dalton's growth, one he passed flawlessly for three quarters before a pair of late interceptions ended Cincinnati's five-game winning streak.
"They try to get into your head a little bit and try to mess with you," Dalton said.
That's the way it tends to go for rookies facing Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense. The Steelers are 13-1 against first-year quarterbacks under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, though Dalton appears to be a little further down the road than most 24-year-olds.
"I don't know how the talk is, but he's rookie of the year," Roethlisberger said. "I think he's that good of a quarterback."
One who doesn't think the Bengals have to wait their turn until the Ravens and Steelers are done dominating the division. Dalton believes the Bengals and be a playoff team now, not next year. For proof he points to the way his team responded after getting in an early hole against the Steelers.
A young team would have folded. Instead, the Bengals surged.
"We were in the game the whole time," said Dalton, whose 16 touchdown passes is a club record for a rookie. "We got down quick but that didn't faze us. We were focused on the next play and we were able to come back in the game. We fell a little short. It's good to get to play them again."
Even if it means facing a defense that could be at full strength for the first time in over a month. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley is expected to play after missing the last three games with a left hamstring injury. Safety Troy Polamalu will also play after sitting out most of the Kansas City game with concussion-like symptoms.
The Bengals aren't nearly as healthy. The secondary looked out of sorts at times in last week's 23-20 escape over Cleveland without safety Leon Hall, out for the season with a torn Achilles.
"I think Leon was playing at a very high level and obviously it hurts when you lose a guy like that so I think they have to be prepared a little bit," Roethlisberger said. "But I feel like they've put Adam (Jones) in there and say 'Here it is.'"
It's an attitude the Bengals have adopted as their confidence has risen in recent weeks as Dalton and rookie wide receiver A.J. Green have continued to play beyond their years.
Green torched the Steelers for a 36-yard touchdown pass in the first game before leaving with a knee strain and sat out a 31-24 loss to the Ravens. He returned in a big way against the Browns, hauling in a 51-yard grab that set up the game-winning field goal.
That's the way it's been this season for Cincinnati, which has rallied from double-digit second-half deficits three times already, tying an NFL record. Another slow start like the one it suffered through in the first meeting would require a fourth.
The Bengals believe it can happen. They're 3-3 over their last six trips to Pittsburgh, playing the Steelers tough regardless of what type of the franchise is enduring.
This one has been pretty good so far. A win on Sunday raises the bar significantly.
"Most people outside of this building, if you'd have told them we'd have a chance the last five games of the season to dictate our destiny, I think people would have laughed at us," Cincinnati left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "But we're there. It's an exciting opportunity, and now we have to make the best of it. It's all in front of us.