CINCINNATI -- The biggest crowd in stadium history wanted Marvin Lewis to go for it. So did the Cincinnati Bengals players, who assumed their coach would try to make a statement.
In a way, he did.
Instead of showing faith in his offense and going for a touchdown, Lewis decided to play it safe and kick a field goal that left the Bengals behind. The demure decision had a ripple effect.
Hines Ward caught two touchdown passes, and the Pittsburgh Steelers turned Lewis' conservative call into the pivotal moment of a 24-13 victory Sunday, their seventh straight in Cincinnati.
From the top down, it was another case of down-the-river domination.
"That's why they're 5-2 and we're 2-5," Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. "Good teams put it in the end zone. Teams like us kick field goals."
They'll be kicking themselves over this one for the rest of the season.
The Steelers solidified their hold on first place in the AFC North and pushed the last-place Bengals to a precipice. The Bengals are 2-5 for the first time since 2004, Carson Palmer's first season as the starting quarterback.
Whenever the Steelers come to town, bad things seem to happen to the Bengals. Pittsburgh ended Cincinnati's 2005 season with a first-round victory in the playoffs, then knocked the Bengals out of contention last season with an overtime victory on New Year's Eve.
"There's a little comfort level here," said Ward, who had eight catches for 88 yards. "We've won here. The environment is not as hostile."
Heading into the game, defensive captain John Thornton said the Bengals had to put on their "big boy pads" and match the Steelers' moxie. When they got a chance to do it late in the first half, they backed down.
Trailing 14-3, the Bengals drove to a fourth-and-1 from just inside the 2-yard line with 2:16 left. They needed only about 2 more feet to get the first down, and they initially looked like they would flex some muscle and go for it.
Lewis called a timeout to talk it over. Then, he sent out the field goal unit.
His players were stunned.
"It's like telling a kid he can have some candy and then saying, 'Um, not right now,' " Houshmandzadeh said.
Shayne Graham's 20-yard kick had barely cleared the uprights when the stadium-record crowd of 66,188 started booing, an instant and emphatic second-guess.
"In hindsight, we probably should have gone for it," Lewis said.
Pittsburgh's response? A gutsy touchdown.
The Steelers drove to Cincinnati's 1-yard line with 8 seconds to go in the half, then confidently gave the ball to Willie Parker, who had 126 yards overall. Parker dived into the end zone, popped up and flexed both arms in a muscleman pose.
Those two drives -- one ending with a field goal, the other with a touchdown -- defined the difference between the two teams.
"That was huge," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "Anytime you get in the end zone before the half, especially with them getting the ball coming out of the half, it's big."
In addition to the big decisions, Cincinnati had trouble with the little things as well.
For the second game in a row, the Bengals had trouble getting 11 players on defense. They had only 10 on the field for Ward's 21-yard touchdown catch -- no defender was even close to the former Super Bowl MVP.
Ward, who missed two games this season with a knee injury, also had a diving 6-yard touchdown catch, his third of the season and the 61st of his career, trailing John Stallworth's club record by two.
"Am I 100 percent? Nobody's 100 percent right now," Ward said. "But I'm getting better and better each week. I felt more comfortable today."
Roethlisberger was 19 of 26 for 230 yards with one costly mistake, a forced interception midway through the third quarter. With their season on the line, the Bengals put together a 17-play drive culminating in Houshmandzadeh's 9-yard touchdown catch that made it 21-13.
"It was just a stupid throw," said Roethlisberger, who has 15 touchdowns and six interceptions. "I shouldn't have done that."
Pittsburgh had another in-your-face response.
The Steelers drained the clock while driving to Jeff Reed's 40-yard field goal with 6:09 left. Kenny Watson then fumbled at Pittsburgh's 16-yard line with 3:16 remaining, ending the Bengals' chances of an improbable comeback.
"The frustrating part is that we're sitting here 2-5," said a glum Palmer, who was 23 of 31 for 205 yards. "I never would have guessed it. I never would have thought it."
Notes: Steelers FB Dan Kreider hurt his ankle on the first series and didn't return. Coach Mike Tomlin declined to give specifics about the injury. ... Roethlisberger, who grew up in Ohio and went to nearby Miami University, is 9-0 in games in the state. ... Parker has run for 100 yards in five of his seven games this season. ... Watson had 88 yards on 19 carries against a defense that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 32 consecutive games.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press