CINCINNATI — With a chance to clinch the division at home, the Bengals lost their quarterback and got roughed up for the first time all season.
Andy Dalton hurt his right thumb while making a tackle on his interception, and the Pittsburgh Steelers roughed up backup AJ McCarron while pulling away to a 33-20 victory on Sunday that left the AFC North up for grabs.
The Steelers (8-5) rumbled with the Bengals during pregame warmups and then led the whole way, sending Cincinnati (10-3) to its first lopsided loss of the season.
William Gay returned one of McCarron’s passes 23 yards for a touchdown, and Ben Roethlisberger had another good day as Pittsburgh’s resurgent offense kept rolling. Pittsburgh has scored 30 points in five straight games, a franchise record.
The game — and potentially Cincinnati’s season — turned on one interception. Stephon Truitt picked off Dalton’s shovel pass in the first quarter, and Dalton hurt his right thumb while making the tackle. After getting an exam, Dalton returned to the sideline with his passing hand in a black cast.
There was no immediate indication of how long he will be sidelined. Dalton has been one of the NFL’s most durable quarterbacks, missing only half a game during his five seasons because of injury. He was leading the league in passer rating heading into the game.
Now, the Bengals’ chances are in the hands of a second-year quarterback from Alabama who missed all of his rookie season with a sore passing shoulder. McCarron threw a 66-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green, who ran past cornerback Antwon Blake, but also threw a floating sideline pass that Gay returned for a touchdown and a 23-7 lead early in the second half.
McCarron, who had thrown only four passes in a mop-up role before Sunday, finished 22 of 32 for 280 yards with two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions that led to Steelers touchdowns.
The Bengals had the fewest injured players in the league heading into the game, but also lost tight end Tyler Eifert to a concussion in the first half. Eifert led the NFL in touchdown catches.
The Steelers have recovered from significant losses of their own — Roethlisberger missing time with a sprained knee, running back Le’Veon Bell out for the season with a knee injury — and hit their stride in the last five games.
Roethlisberger has been at his best. He went 30 of 39 for 282 yards with an interception as the Steelers protected a big lead in the second half. DeAngelo Williams ran for a pair of touchdowns, and Chris Boswell made field goals from 42, 47, 45 and 31 yards.
The Steelers had looked forward to the rematch in Cincinnati since the Bengals’ 16-10 victory in Pittsburgh on Nov. 1, one that ended with trash talking and tough feelings. The dislike bubbled out during warmups when players from both teams got into a brief shouting-and-shoving match at midfield.
Also, Bengals cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones — who was inactive with a foot injury — sent a profane tweet about Pittsburgh pregame.
By the fourth quarter, all the drama was gone. Bengals fans headed for the exits after Robert Golden picked off McCarron with 5:14 to go, leaving Steelers fans to twirl their Terrible Towels in celebration as Pittsburgh scored a clinching touchdown.