Steelers keep AFC North up for grabs, Bengals lose Dalton

CINCINNATI (AP) — The Steelers weren’t going to surrender their title. Not in Cincinnati, anyway.

The defending AFC North champions rumbled with the Bengals during pregame warmups and then got the better of a chippy game, beating Cincinnati 33-20 on Sunday as the whole playoff picture changed with one quarterback’s tackle.

Andy Dalton broke his right thumb while making a tackle off his interception, and the Steelers battered backup AJ McCarron to prevent the Bengals (10-3) from clinching the division on their home field.

The Steelers (8-5) also kept themselves in the thick of the playoff chase.

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“A lot was made this week of them being able to clinch the division and get into the playoffs,” said Ben Roethlisberger, who improved to 19-4 in NFL games in his native Ohio. “And we didn’t want us to be the reason that they got in.”

The biggest development was Dalton’s injury, which occurred when he tackled Stephon Truitt after the end intercepted his shovel pass. Dalton had the hand in a cast and will see a specialist on Monday to get an idea of treatment options.

“It’s disappointing, especially the way this season has gone,” said Dalton, who had missed only half of one game previously in his five-year career.

AJ McCarron, who missed all of his rookie season with a sore passing shoulder and made only four throws in a mop-up role this year, had a rough time as his replacement. He went 22 of 32 for 280 yards with a 66-yard touchdown to A.J. Green and an interception that William Gay returned 23 yards for a touchdown.

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McCarron was sacked three times and had another interception that led to a touchdown.

“I’ve always believed in myself when I’ve stepped between those white lines where it’s a nasty and dirty game,” said McCarron, who won two national titles at Alabama. “If you lose confidence it can go bad for you real quick.”

Some takeaways from Paul Brown Stadium:

STEELERS OFFENSE KEEPS ROLLING: The Steelers have scored at least 30 points in each of their last five games, a franchise record. Roethlisberger has been impressive during the stretch, getting the Steelers back into the playoff hunt. He went 30 of 39 for 282 yards on Sunday.

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“I think they’re still writing that story,” coach Mike Tomlin said.

McCARRON’S TIME: The fifth-round pick missed all of his rookie season with a sore passing shoulder, but played well enough during the preseason to win the No. 2 job. He’ll get more time to practice with the starting offense this week.

“This kid has a great personality,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “It’s why he’s here. He’s got the guys in the building’s confidence. We’re so impressed with him. And now he’s got to leas us for however long.”

NEW LEVEL OF NASTINESS: There was trash talk after the Bengals’ 16-10 win in Pittsburgh on Nov. 1 that intensified in the week leading up to this game and carried over to the field. Players from both teams exchanged words and shoves at midfield during warmups and were separated by coaches. There were three penalties for unnecessary roughness in the first 14 plays.

“That game — it was grimy out there,” Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “That’s how we like to play. Once they started yacking and all of that, we knew that’s the game we like to play.”

BENGALS DEFENSE STYMIED: The Bengals came into the game having allowed the fewest points in the NFL, holding five of the last six opponents to 10 points or fewer. The 33 points allowed were the second-most all season.

DOWN THE STRETCH: The Steelers have their final home game next Sunday against Denver, and then play at Baltimore and Cleveland. The Bengals play at San Francisco next Sunday, at Denver in a Monday night game, and at home against Baltimore.