This one’s been simmering for a while, like a small stick of butter dropped onto a frying pan set on medium heat.
The Cincinnati Bengals will head into Sunday’s 1 p.m. road matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers for just their second game that has counted since the last time they met up, and that one counted a whole lot more. For eight months, they’ve lived with the pain of that 18-16 loss in the wildcard round. It was their seventh consecutive playoff loss under head coach Marvin Lewis, and it was closer and expended more guts than perhaps all of the others combined.
Crazy things can happen when the heat of a moment gets a little too hot. Eight months past the last meeting, it can be startling to consider that so much fire was packed into a single playoff game, such as:
- Vontaze Burfict driving Ben Roethlisberger into the ground on top of his shoulder, forcing him out of the game on a stretcher as Bengals fans tossed garbage down upon him.
- Six Cincinnati fans getting arrested for their actions during the game, which included one headbutting another, one hitting a woman in the face and a third who urinated on someone.
- Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier delivering a shot to the head of Bengals running back Giovani Bernard, knocking him out of the game with a concussion.
- Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak pulling the hair of Bengals safety Reggie Nelson during a weird collision on the sidelines, later drawing a $10,000 fine from the league.
- Two teams combining for 18 penalties for 221 yards, with two crucial ones deciding the game at the end.
- Roethlisberger checking back into the game for a final drive only to throw a pass to Antonio Brown, who then suffered a head shot of his own from Burfict. As Brown lay on the ground with a concussion that would ultimately end his season, Steelers linebackers coach Joey Porter got involved with the scuffle on the field. Porter went at it with Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, but Jones drew the flag, giving the Steelers a total of 30 free yards on penalties in the final minute to set up a 35-yard game-winning field goal by Chris Boswell.
Add in the dirty injury-inducing plays of past matchups — like Kimo Von Oelhoffen rolling over Carson Palmer’s knee in a 2006 wildcard game and Burfict doing something similar to end Le’Veon Bell’s season last year — and Sunday’s game could hold a level of two-sided animosity rarely seen in this corporate league. This time, Steelers fans will get to play hosts.
The AFC North is a breeding ground for rivalries, whether it’s the Browns and Bengals engaging in tame battles for Ohio or the Steelers-Ravens games that have taken on their own meaning with all the personalities and playoff implications they’ve pulled in over the years. But the one that reigns supreme today is Steelers-Bengals, based on what’s so often on the line and how those emotions entangle into moments each team won’t let the other forget.
This is what happens when the little guy rises up to challenge the bully. Lewis has created a brute force in Cincinnati that wins while playing in the gray, straddling the fine line between character and chaos that often gets it into the playoffs only to lose in the big moments. It’s a different trajectory than the Steelers, who have Super Bowl victories spread across six decades. But the meanness, swagger and cockiness that define today’s Bengals are borrowed traits. They’re the attitudes that have kept the Steelers and Ravens atop the division for years.
“The Bengals had created some animosity toward us. That’s the fun part of this game. … Any time someone’s getting used to getting beat a lot, they have to find something to get them going,” Brown said, according to ESPN.
This rivalry might only last as long as the current characters remain and as both sides continue to win, which are very dependent upon one another. Since Lewis arrived in 2003, the Bengals have made the playoffs seven times and the Steelers eight. With two meetings every year and occasionally a third, the success of one comes at the agonizing heartbreak of the other.
Sunday’s game will have the characters minus Burfict. It’ll have two high-powered passing games and 1-0 teams chasing a division lead. It won’t be a do-or-die game like it was in January. Rather, it’s the follow-up to that great debacle, which places the intrigue at an all-time high.