By Barry Wilner
AP Pro Football Writer
Now is the time for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Forget that one-game-at-a-time mumbo jumbo. Beating the Steelers, who are 7-point favorites, on Sunday in Pittsburgh isn't just about this weekend. It's about making a statement in a tough division and elevating yourself to the level of the elite: Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
The Bengals are 7-4, but only one victory (Tennessee) came against an opponent that currently has a winning record. Their showdowns with the Steelers and Ravens earlier this year wound up as close losses.
Unless they change that pattern, the Bengals can't be taken seriously as a contender.
"We're excited," tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "I mean, most people outside of this building, if you'd have told them we'd have a chance the last five games of the season to dictate our destiny, I think people would have laughed at us. But we're there."
In front of Cincinnati on the schedule are Houston, down to a third-string quarterback, St. Louis and Arizona before a finale against Baltimore. Not the most imposing test.
But beating the Steelers (8-3) is the primary objective. Pittsburgh has won eight of the last 10 meetings.
"I think every week's a little different message," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "This is a big football game for us, no doubt about it. If we want to have an opportunity to win the AFC North, this is an important game for us."
The Steelers struggled last Sunday night in Kansas City, but Ben Roethlisberger, injured thumb and all, loves the sight of the Bengals. He is 11-4 against them, with six wins in the last seven games, when he had 14 TD passes.
The week started on Thursday night with Seattle beating Philadelphia 31-14.
Denver (6-5) at Minnesota (2-9)
(VIKINGS FAVORED BY 1½)
Denver has won four in a row and five of six since Tim Tebow was elevated to starting quarterback. Sure, it isn't pretty, but it's effective, and the Broncos will take five more games (and wins) like it.
Minnesota needs to show some spark or Leslie Frazier, in his first year as coach, could be in trouble.
Baltimore (8-3) at Cleveland (4-7)
(RAVENS FAVORED BY 6½)
If the Ravens play down to the level of the opposition, as they have in losses to Jacksonville and Seattle, this could be troublesome. Baltimore's defense was fearsome and dominant on Thanksgiving night in manhandling San Francisco, and the Browns, who have yielded 27 sacks, are ripe to be ruined by Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and perhaps a returning Ray Lewis, who missed the last two games with a right toe injury.
"Even though I wasn't physically out there the last two games, I was with my teammates the whole time, cheering them on and in their ears every time I saw something that might help," Lewis said. "I'm doing everything I can to get back and help this team get where we want to go."
Green Bay (11-0) at N.Y. Giants (6-5)
(PACKERS FAVORED BY 6½)
New York was routed by New Orleans on Monday night, its third straight defeat; the Giants tend to fade in the second half of seasons under Tom Coughlin. Now, they face a similar passing attack led by Aaron Rodgers, who is on all kinds of record passing paces, and the ball-hawking Packers.
Green Bay has never been 11-0, and has won 17 in a row counting its run to the Super Bowl last season. Getting to 18 would clinch a playoff spot and tie for the second-longest winning string in NFL history. This might be one of the tougher steps toward an undefeated regular season, but only if the Giants step up.
"We are just as interested in taking our best shot as anybody that gets the chance to play against a very good football team that was the world champion a year ago," Coughlin said. "We realize that the margin is thin and we are going to have to play very well in order to accomplish this, but we think we can."
Indianapolis (0-11) at New England (8-3)
(PATRIOTS FAVORED BY 20)
Shield your eyes.
Wisely, the league moved this mismatch from prime time into an earlier slot. If the Colts get their first victory of 2011, it will rank with the biggest regular-season upsets in NFL annals. Indeed, the Patriots are about a 20-point favorite.
Bill Belichick is only 11-8 vs. Indy and is not one to call off the dogs even when a game turns into a rout. Yes, the Patriots have an iffy defense, particularly the secondary, but that isn't likely to matter against the Peyton-less Colts.
St. Louis (2-9) at San Francisco (9-2)
(49ERS FAVORED BY 13½)
A win and the 49ers are in. Considering the huge lead (five games) they have in the NFC West and the remaining schedule -- three more divisional games after this -- the main urgency might be to keep ahead of New Orleans for a first-round playoff bye.
The Niners acquitted themselves well on defense on Thanksgiving night in Baltimore, but must protect QB Alex Smith better.
Atlanta (7-4) at Houston (8-3)
(FALCONS FAVORED BY 3)
Matt Ryan comes off his best game of the season in a win over Minnesota, but he takes on a far superior defense now. Houston will need a big pass rush and a strong running game this month to hold onto first place in the AFC South with T.J. Yates, Kellen Clemens, Jake Delhomme, Warren Moon or whomever behind center.
Atlanta has the easiest road to the postseason, with remaining games against Carolina, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, and the only real test after the Texans a visit to New Orleans on Christmas weekend. The Falcons' second-ranked rushing defense will get plenty of looks at Arian Foster and Ben Tate toting the ball.
Tennessee (6-5) at Buffalo (5-6)
(BILLS FAVORED BY 1½)
Tennessee, which has won five of the last six against Buffalo, is in a strange spot. It trails Houston by two games and already has lost to the Texans, but with Houston's quarterbacking uncertainty, the Titans might be in the better position down the stretch. That's especially possible if Chris Johnson's 190 yards rushing against Tampa Bay is an indication of what he will provide the rest of the season.
Don't look for any outrageous celebrations from Stevie Johnson this week after he got nailed for a $10,000 fine for mimicking Plaxico Burress shooting himself in the thigh. As damaging as that was for reeling Buffalo, Johnson's dropped passes were worse.
Dallas (7-4) at Arizona (4-7)
(COWBOYS FAVORED BY 4½)
The first-place Cowboys -- been a while since that was applicable -- always draw plenty of fans when they visit Arizona. On a four-game winning streak and showing balance on offense, stinginess on defense, Dallas might be an NFC darkhorse.
"It's just about getting better as the season goes along, and that's what we're trying to do," safety Gerald Sensabaugh said. "We missed out on some opportunities early on in the season. We had some games we should've won but kind of let them go. But the last couple of weeks, we've had two victories where we had to come from behind."
Carolina (3-8) at Tampa Bay (4-7)
(BUCCANEERS FAVORED BY 3)
With the Bucs losing five straight and six of seven, and the Panthers dropping six of eight -- with wins over weaklings Washington and Indianapolis -- this hardly is a showcase. Carolina, of course, is in rebuilding mode, while Tampa's slide from 10 wins last year to this season's disappointment has set its reclamation project back.
Oakland (7-4) at Miami (3-8)
(DOLPHINS FAVORED BY 3)
One of the AFC's grand cross-country rivalries, and with Miami improving recently, the AFC West leaders will be challenged. The Raiders also figure to be without RB Darren McFadden again, not that it has mattered too much with the way Michael Bush has filled in. The Dolphins had won three straight before falling at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day.
Kansas City (4-7) at Chicago (7-4)
(BEARS FAVORED BY 7)
Two more teams with woes behind center as their starters -- Matt Cassel in KC, Jay Cutler in Chicago -- are sidelined with injuries. At least the Bears can rely on superb special teams and a dynamic defense, particularly at home, to carry them in these kind of matchups.
Chiefs coach Todd Haley insists Tyler Palko is his starting QB. Unless he starts off well against the Bears, look for Kyle Orton to come in early.
N.Y. Jets (6-5) at Washington (4-7)
(JETS FAVORED BY 3)
Washington has won the last four in this infrequent series, and the way the Jets are playing, it could easily go to five. New York was fortunate to beat Buffalo a week ago, getting four TD passes from Mark Sanchez even though he played poorly for much of the game.
For the Redskins to pull the upset, they must take advantage of the Jets' spotty pass rush and force Sanchez to deal with Washington's playmakers on defense.
Detroit (7-4) at New Orleans (8-3) (Sunday Night)
(SAINTS FAVORED BY 9)
The league and NBC moved this to prime time before Lions DT Ndamukong Suh was given a two-game suspension that he appealed. It could be an entertaining offensive explosion, although expecting Matthew Stafford and company to match points and big plays with Drew Brees and his legion of receivers is a tough challenge.
San Diego (4-7) at Jacksonville (3-8) (Monday Night)
(CHARGERS FAVORED BY 3)
The coaching change already has come in Jacksonville, with Mel Tucker taking over for the fired Jack Del Rio. Plus, Wayne Weaver has found a buyer for the team.
The Spanos family probably won't be selling the Chargers. As for a coaching change, well, Norv Turner's Bolts have dropped six straight.