John Clay: Bengals-Steelers has a new 'do

CINCINNATI — In its most simplistic terms, the first meeting, Sept. 27, came down to the fact that the former Southern Cal quarterback with the beard was on the field at Paul Brown Stadium and the former Southern Cal strong safety with the famous head of hair was not.

Carson Palmer was the bearded one. His Bengals trailed the defending world champion Steelers 20-9 in the fourth quarter.

Then a six-play, 85-yard drive cut the Pittsburgh lead to five. Then a 16-play, 71-yard Bengals drive won it, with Palmer finding Andre Caldwell on a 4-yard touchdown pass with 14 seconds left, then Brian Leonard for the two-point conversion, for a 23-20 Bengals breakthrough.

As the commercial says, Troy Polamalu is the one with the hair. That Sunday, however, the Steelers' strong safety, the best in the business, was the one without a uniform. Polamalu was on the sideline, nursing a sprained left knee. Pittsburgh felt his absence.

This Sunday, he's back. But so are the blooming Bengals. The two AFC North rivals meet in Pittsburgh with much on the line. Cincinnati is 6-2, a shining 4-0 in the AFC North. Pittsburgh is also 6-2, but with a loss to Cincinnati smudging its scorecard. It can't afford another.

A Cincinnati victory amounts to a two-game division lead. Thus, it's the biggest Bengals game since the two teams met in the 2005 playoffs.

"We have an opportunity to make hay in the division," Coach Marvin Lewis said Wednesday during his weekly news conference at Paul Brown Stadium.

Or did Lewis mean hair? The joke in those Head and Shoulders commercials is the commentators can't take their minds off Polamalu's signature flowing black mane. In their locker room Wednesday, the Bengals couldn't seem to take their mind off the Steelers star, either.

"It's going to be a physical game," said linebacker Brandon Johnson. "When you got guys like Polamalu hitting people, you got to match that."

"I'm glad Troy's back," said Chad Ochocino, standing in front of his locker, where he had hung a sign claiming it was now against NFL rules to cover him one-on-one.

"He makes the football plays he's supposed to make and the football plays other players are supposed to make," Lewis said. "And he makes plays where you go, 'Wow, how did he do that?'"

Pittsburgh went 2-2 in the four games Polamalu missed after injuring his knee in the season opener. The Steelers are 3-0 since.

In Monday night's 28-10 win at Denver, a Polamalu pick set up the clinching Steelers score, a 25-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Michael Wallace with 7:03 remaining.

"He's one of the best players in the league," said Palmer, his old college teammate. "I respect him as much, if not more, than anyone else in the league."

Palmer said the two don't talk as much these days, but when they do "it's like old times."

And those commercials?

"He's good. He's a good actor," said Palmer. "He might have taken some acting classes back at SC."

These Bengals have taken a starring role, too. Their stellar half-season is no fluke. They've already swept Baltimore. They are a perfect 3-0 on the road. They boast the league's second-leading rusher, Cedric Benson, as well as the league's second-best run defense.

The No. 1 run defense? That would be Pittsburgh.

"They have a great defense," Palmer said. "And if you add (Polamalu) to it, you're going to get better."

That makes Sunday's matchup even better.

"He's extremely good, but he's going to get the business, too. You know what I'm saying?" said Ochocinco. "This will be an event. Not a football game."