CINCINNATI - Andy Dalton saw all of it coming, except for that final throw.
Cornerback William Gay anticipated the rookie quarterback's last pass and stepped in front for a game-clinching interception Sunday as the Pittsburgh Steelers held on for a 24-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, who will remember that last play for a long time.
"They take chances," Dalton said. "They bite on things and try to jump routes. On that play they did, and it worked for them."
It was a big moment for the surprising Bengals (6-3), who had their first sellout at Paul Brown Stadium in a year -- albeit with thousands of Steelers fans filling out the crowd. It was a chance to see how they measure up against the AFC North's best after half a season of playing a lot of non-division also-rans.
They were right there with the defending AFC champion Steelers (7-3) until the fourth quarter, when Pittsburgh closed it out with a pair of interceptions.
"We went toe-to-toe with them," rookie receiver A.J. Green said. "They have a great defense, but we belong in that league."
The Bengals came into the game with a five-game winning streak. They were facing a defense that had only two interceptions and two fumble recoveries all season, a stunningly small statistic for a defense that prides itself on getting the ball.
They got it twice when it mattered most.
Rashard Mendenhall's 9-yard run put the Steelers' up 24-17 late in the third quarter, leaving it to the defense to finish it off. First, linebacker Lawrence Timmons picked off a deflected pass, ending a drive at the Pittsburgh 33. Gay pulled off the clincher, stepping in front of Jerome Simpson for an interception at the 19-yard line with 2:27 left.
Gay had allowed Baltimore's Torrey Smith to get behind him for a 26-yard touchdown catch with 8 seconds left in the Ravens' 23-20 win at Pittsburgh last Sunday. It wasn't going to happen again.
Dalton handled most of what Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau threw at him until the end. He had two more touchdown passes, giving him 14 overall -- the most by a rookie quarterback in his first nine games since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. He wasn't sacked even though the Steelers blitzed him every way they could.
"I felt like we had a really good grasp on what they were doing," said Dalton, who was 15 of 30 for 170 yards with two touchdowns. "Even with all the movements and shifts that they were doing, I still thought we had a good feel. They did throw some things at us, but I thought we adjusted well and handled it."
Until the fourth quarter.
Dalton didn't have top receiver A.J. Green on the field for those pivotal moments. Green, who leads all rookie NFL receivers, jarred his right knee when he landed awkwardly on a 36-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
Green returned on the next series, but was held out as a precaution after his knee tightened at halftime.
"I just came down straight-legged and my knee buckled," Green said. "At halftime when I came in and sat down, it got real stiff. I couldn't really get any movement."
Ben Roethlisberger was 21 of 33 for 245 yards with one touchdown and a deflected interception. He was sacked five times, matching his season high.
Roethlisberger found Jerricho Cotchery uncovered in the end zone for a 16-yard score that got thousands of Terrible Towels waving. It was the fifth time in the last six games that the Steelers reached the end zone on their opening possession.
Mendenhall ran 2 yards for a 14-0 lead on the Steelers' next possession. At that point, Pittsburgh had a 132-8 advantage in yards.
Dalton brought the Bengals back by doing what he does best -- throw the ball Green's way so he can make a game-changing play. After running away from the pass rush, Dalton threw 36 yards to Green, who went up between safeties Troy Polamalu and Clark to make the catch in the end zone.
Then, the Steelers helped the Bengals keep it close.
Tight end Heath Miller bobbled a pass directly to cornerback Leon Hall for an interception that set up Mike Nugent's 43-yard field goal, cutting it to 14-10. Miller had another bad moment late in the first half, wiping out an apparent touchdown with an interference penalty. Shaun Suisham's 39-yard field goal gave Pittsburgh a 17-10 halftime lead.
Hall, the Bengals' top cornerback, hurt his left Achilles tendon on that drive and didn't return.
Dalton pulled the Bengals even with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Gresham on their opening drive of the second half. Pittsburgh went no-huddle and pulled off the winning drive, covering 81 yards in 11 plays. Mendenhall's 9-yard run put the Steelers up 24-17 late in the third quarter.
Notes: Pittsburgh has won eight of its last nine in Cincinnati. ... Roethlisberger is 7-1 career in Cincinnati. ... Mike Tomlin got his 50th regular-season victory, joining former Steelers coaches Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Raymond "Buddy" Parker in that category. ... Dalton has thrown for 1,866 yards, passing Greg Cook for the franchise record by a rookie. ... Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Hall will be evaluated further to determine the extent of his Achilles injury.