Steelers win AFC North, lose RB Le'Veon Bell

By Will Graves, Associated Press

Le'Veon Bell is injured after being hit by Reggie Nelson.

Pittsburgh — Le'Veon Bell tugged at the top of his jersey while the Pittsburgh Steelers training staff tended to his throbbing right knee.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are heading back to the playoffs as division champions after a 27-17 win over Cincinnati on Sunday night. They just might have to begin their journey for a seventh Super Bowl without their talented and versatile catalyst from Michigan State.

The second-year running back was injured in the third quarter after a legal but low shot to the legs from Cincinnati's Reggie Nelson. The early diagnosis is a hyperextended knee and no major structural damage. It's uncertain whether Bell will be available on Saturday when the Steelers (11-5) host Baltimore (10-6) in the wild-card round.

"I can say right now from the things I've heard that he should be OK, but I can't really say," Pittsburgh backup running back Josh Harris said.

Neither can anyone else, leaving the surging Steelers with an unwanted question mark as they prepare for a return to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

"I know if there is a chance that he can be out there, he's going to be because that's how he is," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.

Either way Pittsburgh will press on. The Steelers have won four straight and are 8-2 since falling to Cleveland on Oct. 12. Their sixth AFC North title this millennium and first since 2010 marked the end of a rebuilding process that began in earnest two years ago. Pittsburgh endued 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013 but have roared back to prominence behind one of the NFL's most potent offenses.

The Steelers relied on it to bail them out late. Antwon Blake forced a fumble by Cincinnati's A.J. Green to end a promising Bengals drive late in the fourth quarter and Roethlisberger responded by turning a third-and-8 into a 63-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown. The Pro Bowl wide receiver's 129th and final catch of the season sealed Pittsburgh's rise from mediocrity.

"Who else was going to make (the play)?" Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He needs no endorsement from me. He is who he is. I don't think any of us are surprised when he delivers for us time and again."

The Bengals (10-5-1) turned it over three times and will play at Indianapolis next Sunday. Green left the game with concussion-like symptoms and his status for the playoffs is unclear. Even if he plays, Cincinnati knows it has to be crisper than it was on a night a chance to win a second straight division crown slipped away.

"We had a rough day," Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. "It's key to take care of the football. We didn't do a very good job of it."