CINCINNATI — Turns out even the service people here wanted a little Steelers blood Sunday.
A female concessionaire walked through the hallway outside their locker room before the game against the Cincinnati Bengals wearing a "Fight Me Mike Vick" T-shirt.
The unpleasantness continued on the Paul Brown Stadium lawn before kickoff. The Steelers accused the Bengals of straying across the 50 to their side of the field during warm-ups. Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict had words with Steelers linebacker Vince Williams, their conversation ending with Burfict head-butting Williams. Williams had threatened Burfict via Twitter after the teams played at Heinz Field in November. Burfict had celebrated taking out Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell with a season-ending knee injury.
"False enthusiasm," Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown called the Bengals' antics.
"Child's play," defensive end Cam Heyward said.
"They disrespected us. We can't tolerate that," Brown said. "It's not a UFC fight. It's a football game."
So were the Bengals trying to intimidate the Steelers on a day when the Bengals could have clinched the AFC North Division?
"You can't intimidate us," defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. "No team can intimidate us. If anything, we can intimidate a team."
Is that what happened Sunday?
"The scoreboard really talks," Tuitt said, grinning.
It told some story.
The Steelers didn't just stand up to the Bengals. They put a 33-20 beating on 'em. It wasn't just the Steelers' best win of the season, their first against a team that has a winning record. They dominated from start to finish.
"We're a football team that's on the rise," safety Mike Mitchell said. "We know where we want to get. This team was in the way."
The Bengals, at 10-3, still have a two-game lead on the Steelers, 8-5, in the division race. But that didn't do much to ease coach Marvin Lewis' angst. "You don't play football with your doggone mouth. You've got to play with your pads," he growled. Lewis' mood wasn't helped because he might not have quarterback Andy Dalton for the rest of the season because of a fractured right thumb. "I can't heal bones," Lewis said, still growling.
The Steelers caught two big breaks when Dalton and tight end Tyler Eifert left after the first series, Eifert with concussion-like symptoms. Dalton came into the game as the NFL's top-rated passer, Eifert the league's top touchdown maker with 12.
But don't let that detract from the Steelers' solid defensive effort. It wasn't perfect, though. Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green caught six balls for 132 yards, beating cornerback Antwon Blake for a 66-yard touchdown on a pass from backup quarterback AJ McCarron. But the defense saved at least three points with an unlikely interception by Tuitt on the Bengals' first drive and produced seven points when cornerback William Gay had a 23-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the third quarter. Safety Robert Golden added a late interception to go along with the defense's three sacks. The Bengals rushed for just 64 yards. All of that came a week after the defense held the Indianapolis Colts to 54 rushing yards and had two interceptions, a fumble recovery and five sacks in a 45-10 win.
"We're really the only ones who stop ourselves," Tuitt said. "We're a talented team."
Tuitt's interception might have been the most important play. The Bengals were trying to answer the Steelers' opening 80-yard touchdown drive and had a second-and-goal at the Steelers 4. Tuitt stepped in front of running back Giovani Bernard to make a low interception. Dalton was injured when he tackled Tuitt.
"I just made a great play," Tuitt said. "I saw that play all week in practice. I reacted, as I should have. I've got some good hands. I played tight end in high school. Maybe the coaches will see that and we'll go from there."
This is just a guess, but Mike Tomlin probably doesn't plan to use Tuitt at tight end. It's not that tight end Heath Miller had another huge game against the Bengals with 10 catches for 66 yards. The Steelers defense is built around Heyward and Tuitt. Heyward is a star. Tuitt is on his way.
So, it seems, are the Steelers.
There are mistakes to correct, to be sure. The offense settled for four Chris Boswell field goals. The team was penalized five times for 82 yards, including personal-foul calls against Mitchell and Blake and an excessive celebration penalty against Gay after his touchdown.
But it will be a confident team that takes on AFC West Division leader Denver Sunday at Heinz Field.
"It's crunch time," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "You've got to get hot at the right time."
The past two games were a big step in the right direction.
"It's not like we won the Super Bowl," Heyward said. "It's not like we're No. 1 in the AFC. We've got to continue to get better."
So this wasn't the Steelers' best game?
"Not yet. Not yet," Heyward said. "We've got our best game waiting on us."
It was a nice thought to end an otherwise nasty day.