PITTSBURGH — Maybe the Cincinnati Bengals were trying to send a message. Mike Tomlin doesn't know and doesn't particularly care.
All the jawing, all the flags, all attempts at intimidation the Bengals tried to throw at the Steelers on Sunday, Pittsburgh and its not exactly wallflower of a head coach have seen many times before.
"It's always us and somebody," Tomlin said. "You know, we seem to attract that type of atmosphere. Maybe it's us."
Particularly in December, when the playoffs aren't just an idea beyond the horizon but a tangible destination. While the Bengals lost their cool and their quarterback to a freak injury, Pittsburgh rolled to a 33-20 victory that possibly altered the trajectory of both clubs.
The Steelers (8-5) have won nine straight December games, tied with Carolina for the longest active streak in the NFL. Pittsburgh is 24-12 in the final month of the calendar year since Tomlin took over in 2007.
"That's just us," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "(Coach Tomlin) doesn't just sit there and say 'Hey, we've got to win now because it's December football.' We just know it's that time of year. It's crunch time and you've got to get hot at the right time."
Something that typically hasn't been an issue for Pittsburgh, even when there isn't much on the line.
The current December winning streak started at the end of a forgettable 2013. Faced with the franchise's first losing season in a decade following a baffling home loss in the snow to the Miami Dolphins that dropped them to 5-8, the Steelers responded by upsetting playoff-bound Cincinnati on the road, then followed with victories in Green Bay and at home against Cleveland in the regular season finale to scramble to 8-8.
Roethlisberger stressed at the time the importance of finishing strong for pride's sake and his team responded. The stakes are considerably higher this time around, and Pittsburgh appears as dangerous as any team in the AFC provided it can keep it going. The remaining schedule doesn't look as daunting as it did three months ago. Denver (10-3) visits Heinz Field on Sunday coming off an ugly second-half collapse at home against Oakland. The Steelers finish the regular season with road trips to reeling Baltimore and rudderless Cleveland. Hostile territory to be sure but not exactly an impossible task.
With the first-place Bengals forced to go without quarterback Andy Dalton — who fractured his right thumb while trying to tackle Pittsburgh defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt after Tuitt's first-quarter interception — suddenly things seem wide open.
"We feel like as long as we're winning, everything is going to take care of itself," linebacker Arthur Moats said. "If you want to turn on ESPN and see what the scores are that week, that's cool ... but as long as we're winning, we're fine."
So much so that at least one Steelers player wouldn't mind getting another crack at Cincinnati in January. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert tweeted (and later deleted) that all he wanted for Christmas was the Bengals, who haven't won a postseason game in a quarte- century.
"Would love to see them in the playoffs where they choke," Gilbert posted. "The talking is done between the lines."
Sunday started with talk between Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict and Steelers linebacker Vince Williams, leading to a skirmish that set the tone for a chippy installment of a rapidly-heating rivalry. Pittsburgh never trailed, handing the Bengals their worst home loss since last December, when the Steelers pulled away late for a 42-21 win.
It's why Pittsburgh tried to ignore whatever smack the Bengals tried to throw the Steelers' way. Pittsburgh wasn't exactly without sin, committing four personal fouls, but the Steelers didn't get rattled by a decidedly rowdy opponent or a raucous atmosphere. If anything, they thrived off it. It's what they tend to do this time of year.
"Football is football, that talking and street stuff, you want to be a thug type of stuff you leave that at home," guard Ramon Foster said. "(If) we see them again, we'll have the same game plan."