CINCINNATI — Marvin Lewis has never been one to claim moral victories. Sunday, though, was close.
The Pittsburgh Steelers spoiled the Bengals' first sellout at Paul Brown Stadium this season, as well as a five-game winning streak, 24-17.
However, a young Cincinnati team that has heard too much talk of how its schedule had been soft, seemed to prove a point even in defeat.
"This team (Pittsburgh) was in the Super Bowl last year," Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton said. "We were down to four minutes in the game and had a chance to win. ... Played well. We just didn't execute when we needed to."
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The Bengals (6-3) nearly pulled one out after spotting the Steelers a 14-0 lead.
"We really fought back in it," Lewis said. "We would like to have the win. But I don't think this team needs to worry about now whether or not they can play with the so-called elite of the AFC. Because they can and will. Now, go back to work and prepare, and just beat the next team we've got to play."
Cincinnati on Sunday will visit Baltimore, the second of four consecutive AFC North tests.
Trailing 24-17, the Bengals had four chances to tie in the fourth quarter.
A punt and a deflected interception ended the first two tries. A hands-to-the-face penalty on tackle Andrew Whitworth stalled a third drive.
Still, Cincinnati was alive when it got the ball on the Steelers' 49 with 4:28 left.
Three plays gained 24 yards.
But then former University of Louisville cornerback William Gay picked off Dalton's pass to Jerome Simpson with 2:27 left.
"The guy made a great play and jumped the route," Dalton said. "My eyes were on the flat defender and, when I let go, he jumped it."
The Steelers (7-3) badly needed a win, having lost its first two divisional games versus Baltimore.
Pittsburgh scored on its first two tries. One came on third-and-10, the other a play after a third-and-10 conversion.
The Steelers converted five of seven third-down chances in the half but went 0-for-5 the rest of the game.
Ben Roethlisberger, who completed 21 of 33 passes for 245 yards, connected with Jerricho Cotchery for a 16-yard touchdown pass.
Rashard Mendenhall scored the first of his two rushing TDs on a 2-yard smash.
The Bengals rallied to within 14-10, getting a 36-yard touchdown pass from Dalton to fellow rookie A.J. Green plus Mike Nugent's 43-yard field goal.
"Just a play that Andy put the ball in the air and gave me a shot," Green said of the touchdown ball that was thrown into triple coverage. "I just went and got it."
The catch was costly, though. Green hyperextended his right knee and returned only briefly, and not at all in the second half.
He said he expects to be ready to play in a few days. He said he had a similar injury during training camp.
Nugent's kick was set up by Leon Hall's interception.
The Bengals came oh-so-close to another first-half pick. Reggie Nelson got his hands on the ball, but was bumped by Hall and lost control.
"You've got to make those kind of plays in this kind of game," Lewis said. "Those are the things we have to continue to 'chop wood' at and get after."
The incompletion was the first play of what wound up being a 16-play scoring drive. Shaun Suisham's 39-yard field goal made it 17-10 for the Steelers at intermission.
The Bengals lost Hall to an Achilles injury in the second quarter and he did not return. He was on crutches after the game.
Cincinnati tied the game at 17 on its first possession of the second half.
Tight ends came up big, as rookie Colin Cochart made a 25-yard reception to put the ball on the Pittsburgh 10.
Fellow tight end Jermaine Gresham, who had a 10-yard grab early in the drive, capped things with a 1-yard touchdown catch.
"It was a fun little drive when you can go back-to-back tight ends catching a big pass down the field," Cochart said.
"I had the same route earlier and told Andy I was open, and he trusted me. Next play, Andy threw a good ball to me and (I) just made the catch."
Dalton went 5-for-7 on the drive. Overall, he finished 15-for-30, for 170 yards.
"He kept them in the game today," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said of Dalton. "They play good team football."
Using a no-huddle offense, the Steelers answered Gresham's touchdown with a Mendenhall score from 9 yards out.
"We didn't play our best game, and we were in this game the whole time," Dalton said. "There are some positive things to take away from the loss. But it hurts to lose."