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Bengals out to prove their worth

Now is the time for the Cincinnati Bengals.

Forget that one-game-at-a-time mumbo jumbo. Beating the Steelers today 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.

Baltimore (8-3)at Cleveland (4-7)

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.

Green Bay (11-0)at N.Y. Giants (6-5)

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.

Indianapolis (0-11)at New England (8-3)

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.

St. Louis (2-9)at San Francisco (9-2)

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.

Detroit (7-4)at New Orleans (8-3)

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.

After starting 5-0, the Lions are struggling to remain viable in the playoff chase. New Orleans has won four of five and really has the offense cranking.

Atlanta (7-4) at Houston (8-3)

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.

Tennessee (6-5) at Buffalo (5-6)

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.

Dallas (7-4) at Arizona (4-7)

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.

Denver (6-5) at Minnesota (2-9)

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.

Oakland (7-4) at Miami (3-8)

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 in a game they easily could have won.

San Diego (4-7)at Jacksonville (3-8)

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.

Kansas City (4-7)at Chicago (7-4)

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. The Chiefs aren't paying the guy $2.6 million over the last six games to back up Palko.

N.Y. Jets (6-5)at Washington (4-7)

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.

Carolina (3-8)at Tampa Bay (4-7)

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.