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Steelers edge Bengals for AFC North title but lose Le'Veon Bell to knee injury

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PITTSBURGH — Le'Veon Bell tugged at the top of his jersey while the Pittsburgh Steelers training staff tended to his throbbing right knee.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are heading back to the playoffs as division champions after a 27-17 win over Cincinnati on Sunday night. They just might have to begin their journey for a seventh Super Bowl without their talented and versatile catalyst.

The second-year running back was injured in the third quarter after a legal but low shot to the legs from Cincinnati's Reggie Nelson. The early diagnosis is a hyperextended knee and no major structural damage. It's uncertain whether Bell will be available on Saturday when the Steelers (11-5) host Baltimore (10-6) in the wild-card round.

"I can say right now from the things I've heard that he should be OK, but I can't really say," Pittsburgh backup running back Josh Harris said.

Neither can anyone else, leaving the surging Steelers with an unwanted question mark as they prepare for a return to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

"I know if there is a chance that he can be out there, he's going to be because that's how he is," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.

Either way Pittsburgh will press on. The Steelers have won four straight and are 8-2 since falling to Cleveland on Oct. 12. Their sixth AFC North title this millennium and first since 2010 marked the end of a rebuilding process that began in earnest two years ago. Pittsburgh endued 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013 but have roared back to prominence behind one of the NFL's most potent offenses.

The Steelers relied on it to bail them out late. Antwon Blake forced a fumble by Cincinnati's A.J. Green to end a promising Bengals drive late in the fourth quarter and Roethlisberger responded by turning a third-and-8 into a 63-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown. The Pro Bowl wide receiver's 129th and final catch of the season sealed Pittsburgh's rise from mediocrity.

"Who else was going to make (the play)?" Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He needs no endorsement from me. He is who he is. I don't think any of us are surprised when he delivers for us time and again."

The Bengals (10-5-1) turned it over three times and will play at Indianapolis next Sunday. Green left the game with concussion-like symptoms and his status for the playoffs is unclear. Even if he plays, Cincinnati knows it has to be crisper than it was on a night a chance to win a second straight division crown slipped away.

"We had a rough day," Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. "It's key to take care of the football. We didn't do a very good job of it."

PHOTO: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) is hit by Cincinnati Bengals free safety Reggie Nelson (20) during the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, in Pittsburgh. Bell was injured on the play. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) is hit by Cincinnati Bengals free safety Reggie Nelson (20) during the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, in Pittsburgh. Bell was injured on the play. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

Other things we learned as a pair of rematches next week loom.

LITTLE GUYS, BIG PLAYS: Pittsburgh played without injured Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, fixtures of its secondary for over a decade. In their place were Brice McCain and Antwon Blake. Both players are 5-foot-9 and turned in three of the game's biggest moments. McCain intercepted Andy Dalton twice while Blake caused and recovered Green's fumble.

HEATED EXCHANGE: Tomlin and Nelson engaged in a brief but somewhat heated exchange during the postgame handshake. They both declined to elaborate on the conversation but it hardly appeared friendly.

"He was talking about some he-said, she-said type of deal," Tomlin said. "I don't know what he was talking about."

DANGEROUS DALTON: Dalton did little to quell the notion he lacks the grit it takes to thrive in January. He completed 27 of 38 for 244 yards and the two picks, both shoddy overthrows to Green.

"It was my fault," Green said. "You have to be better. You can't turn the ball over."

REMATCH NO. 1: The Steelers and Ravens renew one of the AFC's most heated rivalries, even if it has cooled in recent years. They split the season series, with each team winning on its home field. They are no stranger to each other in the postseason. Pittsburgh beat Baltimore in the 2009 AFC title game and again in the Divisional round two years later.

"It's going to be regular Ravens/Steelers," Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison said. "Smashmouth."

REMATCH NO. 2: Cincinnati returns to Indianapolis, where the Colts humbled the Bengals 27-0 on Oct. 19. Cincinnati managed just 135 total net yards.

"I'm looking forward to the opportunity to give it back to them," Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. "They obviously put it on us pretty well earlier in the season."


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