CINCINNATI – The ball headed straight for Jordan Shipley. So did James Harrison.
Care to guess which one won?
The often-fined Harrison lowered his shoulder and helped knock the ball loose from Shipley near the 5-yard line on Cincinnati's final play, preserving a 27-21 victory over the Bengals on Monday night that left the AFC North with an old, familiar look.
The Steelers (6-2) are again at the top, sharing the spot with Baltimore. The defending-champion Bengals (2-6) are in last place alone after their fifth straight loss, coming up one completion short.
Credit that last rib-jolting hit — legal all-around — by the Steelers' on-the-spot defenders.
"The defense held strong," said Ben Roethlisberger, who was 17 of 27 for 163 yards with a touchdown and an interception that helped the Bengals rally at the end.
At the end of a night full of foibles, tricks and missed chances, the Steelers turned to their one constant to finish it off. That unyielding defense came through again.
"This is how the Steelers play ball," defensive back Ike Taylor said. "We might get a blowout here and there. But we're always in tough close ballgames. As a defense we just want to close them out. That's what we did tonight."
Pittsburgh seemed to be in control when Antwaan Randle El threw a 39-yard touchdown pass off a trick play to open the fourth quarter, building a 27-7 lead made possible by the Bengals' many mistakes. Pittsburgh also had points set up by a fumbled kickoff, a blocked punt and a missed field goal.
Then, the Steelers turned sloppy as well. Roethlisberger threw an interception that set up Terrell Owens' second touchdown catch of the game, and Jeff Reed missed a 46-yard field goal try that would have clinched it with 3:59 to go.
The drama had just begun.
Last year, Cincinnati jump-started its perfect run through the division by rallying to beat the Steelers 23-20 on Carson Palmer's touchdown pass with 14 seconds left. When Reed's attempt swerved left, the Steelers got a bad feeling.
"They had Carson Palmer and company with timeouts," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "And that's a horror movie and we've seen that before."
Palmer led the Bengals downfield with the help of a wacky play. His pass to Cedric Benson was tipped, but the running back made a juggling catch for a 16-yard gain on third-and-long. Chad Ochocinco's only catch of the game moved it to the 12-yard line.
On fourth-and-5, Palmer found Shipley open over the middle in first-down range, but the Steelers converged and squeezed the ball out to end it.
"I ran in the middle of two guys," Shipley said. "I felt like I had it, and they knocked it out of there."
Palmer was 22 of 36 for 248 yards with an interception and touchdown passes of 19 and 27 yards to Owens.
"I think Carson played a great game under a lot of heat," said Owens, who had 10 catches for 141 yards. "He put the ball in there in tight situations. You look at the last four or five games we've played, it's been a play here or there that's made the difference."
It was fitting that Harrison had a shoulder in the final play. He got his third fine of the season, this one pushing the total to $100,000, for a hit last week on the Saints' Drew Brees. The linebacker got summoned to Commissioner Roger Goodell's office for a meeting.
Goodell was at the game on Monday night, watching as the Harrison-led defense got the best of the Ohio River rivalry.
Eight seconds into the game, the Bengals already were in trouble.
The Steelers won the coin toss and deferred to the second half. Bernard Scott got the kickoff and fumbled at the Cincinnati 25. Pittsburgh needed only four plays to score, with Rashard Mendenhall pushing the final yard for a 7-0 lead.
When Scott held onto the ball as he was tackled during the ensuing kickoff, some Bengals fans gave a derisive cheer. They were incredulous moments later when William Gay burst through the middle of the line untouched and blocked Kevin Huber's punt at the Cincinnati 30-yard line — Pittsburgh's first blocked punt in two years.
Reed's 25-yard field goal made it 10-0, just like that.
"Initially, we created some opportunities for ourselves," Tomlin said. "You knew it was going to be a 60-minute game."
The Steelers lost two offensive linemen on a second-quarter drive. Left guard Chris Kemoeatu hobbled off with an injured right ankle. Center Maurkice Pouncey limped off with an injured right leg two plays later, but returned in the second half. Then, left tackle Max Starks went out in the third quarter with a neck injury.
With the backups in place, the Steelers managed to stay ahead. Roethlisberger threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward, his 15th TD catch against the Bengals — Ward's highest total against any team. And Randle El's first pass of the season went for a touchdown that seemed to put it out of reach.
Notes: The Steelers got DE Brett Keisel back from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for the past two games, but he aggravated it and left the game. ... Ward extended his streak to 186 consecutive regular-season games with a catch, moving ahead of Owens for third place on the all-time list. ... It was Randle El's fifth career touchdown pass. ... Owens' two TDs gave him 151 career. On his last one, he caught the ball at the back of the end zone and inadvertently ran over a security guard looking toward the stands. The guard wasn't hurt.