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The Bengals are so good the Steelers can't ignore them anymore

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The tide has turned in one of the NFL's greatest rivalries, and the Steelers are struggling to come to terms with it.

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH -- It was right there in the faces of the Steelers afterward, that look and sound of angst that accompanies defeat. But there was something more. It wasn't just that the Cincinnati Bengals had clocked them late, 16-10, scorching a path to a franchise-first 7-0 record and cooling the Steelers to a lukewarm 4-4.

No, it was this air of divine right that the Steelers ooze over the Bengals. This air of Pittsburgh's supremacy, an air of royalty and smugness, a persistent clarity in their minds on who is who and what is what in this divisional rivalry.

Pittsburgh had won eight of the last 10 games against Cincinnati. Here in Heinz Field, it had won four of the last five. Since this place opened in 2001, it had won nine of the 14 matchups here.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was 12-4 against the Bengals.

So, it started with Tomlin. He rattled on after the game about how his team was victimized by penalties and turnovers and how you can't do that against "good people, against undefeated people,"  in such a second-handed way of referencing the Bengals that it was hilarious.

But then Tomlin shifted into more frankness.

"A little hurt today, but we should hurt," he said. "We put a lot into that and came up short. That's life."

That's not the Steelers/Bengals experience around here.

Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant said it was all about his team's lack of attention to detail in key plays in key moments. Defensive end Cameron Heyward said it was all about his team's lack of finishing, lamented the injury and loss of running back Le'Veon Bell and said his team cannot be counted out yet because "there is too much football to be played."

Linebacker Lawerence Timmons is in his ninth season here and has played a role in dominating the Bengals. Timmons said: "It was a close game. You let things happen the wrong way and this is what it gets you."

I just didn't hear a lot of acknowledgement on who and what the Bengals are through seven games this season. That did not surprise the Bengals.

One of the Bengals coaches said of Pittsburgh: "It's just who they are and how they do."

For nearly three hours, Pittsburgh played as if it was truly superior. It led 7-0, 7-3, 7-6 and 10-6 until 2:37 was left in the game. Cincinnati then took its first lead on an Andy Dalton 9-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green. With 1:47 left, Cincinnati added a final field goal.

Pittsburgh kept turning it over late - quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in his first game after returning from injury threw three interceptions - and Cincinnati in every phase kept playing with a renewed psyche.

The Bengals are exceptionally skilled. Their mind game is refurbished. They are exhibiting a refreshed and invigorating approach in their game's intricate matchups and a larger clarity on who is who and what is what. It is propelling them.

"I think the team understands what we have," Green said after his 11-catch, 118-yard effort. "We are playing for more than just trying to win a division. We've been under Pittsburgh's thumb for a while. They would like to keep us there. I know they don't really think a lot of us. They hit (Bengals receiver) Marvin (Jones) hard on one play and (Steelers safety) Mike Mitchell walked up to me and yelled, `I got you next.' Listen, that's their old way. But this is a new day. Everyone wants to talk about the old Steelers. I think it's time to take a look at the new Bengals."

Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson provided more clarity: "We've got big goals. We get to them by sticking to what we do best. We did that against them today. But the main thing we did? We set our jaw. There was no flinching."

There was a calmness and sense of playmaking among the Bengals in the game's final, crucial minutes that has always been expected of Pittsburgh in this series. There was a brute physical nature to the play in the crucial minutes that the Bengals matched and then exceeded.

These are traits they look to define them in their final nine regular season games as they seek to keep pace with the Patriots and the Broncos in AFC undefeated play.

It was clear that the Bengals understand taking care of the moment provides for the future, both for their season and rematch on Dec. 13 at home against the Steelers.

"You have to give a lot to beat this team in this stadium," Dalton said.

You have to give even more to whip the mindset of a team that believes you are only the little engine that could, the little brother, the working-class stiff.

This was evident in the diverse experiences of two Bengals, rookie safety Derron Smith and nine-year cornerback Adam Jones.

Smith, from Fresno State, made his first trip to Heinz Field.

"I heard so much about it," Smith said. "And being on the kickoff team, I was going to be on the field to start the game. The crowd and all of those Terrible Towels waving were incredible. The only thing close to it I had ever experienced was when we played at Nebraska in college. Pittsburgh is a good team, they have an incredible crowd and I can see why they have had so much success here. But we have a team that is ready to take on some things."

Jones sees it this way.

"We are different," Jones said. "Our team has a large veteran presence now. Everyone here knows and realizes we are super talented. But now we are playing with confidence. Now we are playing with smarts."

With jaws set.