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7-2 Bengals in control of AFC North

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Black, long-sleeve shirts were hanging in the Cincinnati Bengals’ lockers on Monday morning when they showed up at Paul Brown Stadium, a gift from coach Marvin Lewis reminding them not to get too caught up in their panoramic view atop the AFC North.

The shirts had orange, block letters that spelled out NDCQ, apparently referring to a phrase players have used during their surprising season: Not dead, can’t quit.

Could have said: WOW.

By beating the Steelers at their own game — on their field, no less — the Bengals (7-2) have taken control of the division heading into the soft stretch of their schedule. They’re in position to reach the playoffs for only the second time in 19 years, doing things like no Bengals team before them.

A newfound toughness suggests that unlike many Bengals teams of the past, this one can keep it going.

“Why not?” defensive lineman Frostee Rucker said Monday. “It looks like this is going to be the team to remember, I guess. So just win out. Everyone is on board to take it on. We’re just pumped.”

A bruising defensive performance that was one of the Bengals’ best in years has left them 5-0 in division games — a franchise first — and put them a game ahead of the Steelers, who saw their winning formula copied by the new big kids on the block.

Like most years in Cincinnati, no one gave them much of a chance when the season started. The 18-12 win in Pittsburgh changed everything.

“We keep doing what we’re doing, it’s going to make everybody respect us eventually,” said rookie running back Bernard Scott, who ran back a kickoff for the only touchdown of the game.

The convincing part was how they did it.

The Bengals hadn’t swept the Steelers since 1998, when Bruce Coslet’s 3-13 team pulled off bookend upsets. That sweep was a fluke; this one completed a transformation. The Bengals have swept the Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens — the two teams that played for the AFC championship last season — in the same season.

Something else that’s never happened before in Cincinnati.

“Very sweet!” linebacker Brandon Johnson said after the game. “I’m almost diabetic right now, it’s so sweet. I’m so excited now I can barely contain myself. It feels good. Five-and-0 in the division. I’ve never experienced anything like this. On to the next one.”

That would be Oakland, followed by Cleveland and Detroit. None of those teams has won more than two games. By sweeping the trio of terrible teams, the Bengals would put themselves in the running for home-field advantage in the playoffs. The only AFC team with a better record is Indianapolis at 9-0.

They’re already starting to look at themselves that way.

“We’re not where we need to be to make a playoff run as a Super Bowl contender,” center Kyle Cook said on Monday.

Unfamiliar talk around these parts.

The Bengals haven’t reached the Super Bowl since the 1988 season, when they had the league’s top-ranked running game with Ickey Woods and James Brooks, a dependable quarterback in Boomer Esiason, and a dependable defense.

Since 1991, they’ve been at the basement far more than at the top. They went 14 years without so much as a winning record, making themselves synonymous with losing. The streak was broken in 2005, when they won the division with an 11-5 mark but watched quarterback Carson Palmer tear up his knee in a playoff loss to Pittsburgh.

After winning only four games last season with Palmer hurt again, the Bengals redesigned the offense to emphasize the running game with Cedric Benson. Palmer is back as the steadying leader. A young and improving defense has gotten more freedom in its second season under coordinator Mike Zimmer.

In Pittsburgh on Sunday, the Bengals blitzed the team known as Blitzburgh right into second place. The Steelers managed only 87 yards in the second half against a defense that pressured Ben Roethlisberger into a subpar effort — four sacks, one interception.

Asked after the game to define his team, Palmer immediately picked one word.

“Physical,” he said.

Physical. And first.

© 2009 Associated Press. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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