PITTSBURGH -- This one wasn't a white-knuckle, hold-on-to-your-butts finish.
It was a welcome change of pace after the Steelers won each of their previous three games by five points or fewer. And in each of those games, the Steelers had to fend off their opponent until the very last play, needing a missed field goal and two end zone pass breakups to seal the wins.
This time, though, the Steelers sealed the 26-point win with Ben Roethlisberger's fourth touchdown of the game, a 5-yard toss to Chase Claypool to go up 29 points with 10 minutes, 31 seconds left in the fourth quarter. It was the second-greatest margin of victory this season after the 31-point win against the Cleveland Browns in Week 6.
"It's AFC North football," receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. "Securing the bag, being up, beating the Bengals, it's just a different vibe for us. We dominate the North, everything will take care of itself. Close games, close people, that's not us."
It was the kind of win the undefeated Steelers needed to remind the NFL -- and themselves -- that they can be a dominant team. And it's the kind of win the Steelers need to carry with them into Jacksonville next week to face a Jaguars team that came within a score of upsetting the Packers in Green Bay.
With the Thanksgiving rematch against the Baltimore Ravens coming a week later, the upcoming game against the one-win Jaguars has the classic markings of a trap game. Sunday's win coupled with the Ravens' loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday night gives the Steelers a three-game lead in the division. But to prevent the distance from closing, the Steelers need to put together another dominant performance to keep the upset-minded Jaguars at bay.
The Steelers already have navigated one trap game this season, eking out a close win against the Dallas Cowboys and quarterback Garrett Gilbert after beating the Ravens and Titans on the road in back-to-back weeks.
That five-point win in Arlington, Texas, was something of a wake-up call for the Steelers, who needed that jolt entering the second half of the season. It further exposed some of their most glaring deficiencies: slow starts, third-down and run defense as well as a stagnant running game. Against the Bengals, the Steelers began to find remedies for those weaknesses.
The offense was still slow to start, kicking two field goals and punting twice in the first four possessions, but the Steelers got it sorted out by the end of the first quarter and took a 22-7 lead into halftime. In the past two weeks, the Steelers muddled through the first half, needing halftime to make adjustments before things started clicking. It didn't take as long to get sorted out this time.
"Even today, the offense started off a little bit sluggish," Smith-Schuster said. "We couldn't convert on third downs, not getting the plays right. There's always more room to improve."
Their third-down defense looked much better against the Bengals, not allowing them to convert a single one. The Steelers' defense also held the Bengals to 139 rushing yards, a mark well above their season average (106.8), but less than the 144 given up to the Cowboys and 265 to the Ravens.
"I like what we did on third down," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "I wouldn't call the rest the most complete. ... Third down was complete. We were really good on possession downs, and that defined the day for the group."
Cornerback Joe Haden had three passes defensed, all coming on third down. And the Steelers used a new combination at linebacker on passing third downs, bringing in Marcus Allen and rookie Antoine Brooks, brought up from the practice squad, to replace Vince Williams and Robert Spillane at inside linebacker.
"We were just trying to mix things up," Tomlin said of the third-down defense. "We didn't want to give [Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow] any clean looks. We wanted to play some man-to-man. We played some man-to-man that was important to minimize [Bengals receiver] Tyler Boyd.
"I can't say enough the level of respect that we have for him and what he does in the game and particularly on the inside on possession downs. So a lot of our plan was to work to at least minimize his impact at that moment."
And while the running game didn't look much better against the Bengals -- James Conner averaged just 2.8 yards per carry -- the Steelers supplemented the ground attack with empty sets and five receiving options available.
"Obviously, we didn't run the ball well today, but we did other things well," Roethlisberger said. "We put points on the board. We scored when we needed to score. We converted when we had to do that. So we shouldn't get so caught up in yards per carry or total yards rushing or things like that because really it comes down to winning the football game first, which we did, and everything kind of falls into place from there."