It had been a while since the Bengals beat the Steelers in a meaningful game—or at all, really—but not only did the Bengals win the big showdown that secured them another playoff birth, it felt like they had finally caught up to their long-time bullies. That's a good feeling for a Bengals fan, but the win lacked something truly satisfying.
That Steelers team that walked off the field—black helmets lowered in shameful defeat—did not resemble the no-nonsense teams of the organization's proud past. That was a very mediocre group we witnessed last Sunday, and the arrow on their future is pointing straight down and flashing red. Sunday felt like beating up an old man. Their defense is still top-ranking and they make it tough to move the ball as witnessed by the putrid offensive output generated by the Bengals, but even that side of the ball is fraying at the seams thanks to mileage and old age. There is a wide gap between veteran and young players in the Steelers locker room. For the first time in decades, they are visibly transitioning and unlike the successful patchwork of the past, this new chapter will be more of an abrupt change than what we're used to.
The Bengals, meanwhile, are building steam and are a team on the rise, evidenced by their second straight Wild-Card invitation, but their conquering in Pittsburgh was far from pronounced and hardly marked much of an arrival. I don't mean to downplay the accomplishment of the team and its coaching staff—the season they have put together has truly surpassed most expectations—but I always dreamed that the Bengals would gain divisional supremacy with an epic vanquishing of the mighty Steelers at the top of their game; a clear indicator to the football universe that a new champion had come to take its rightful throne atop the AFC North. Instead, Cincinnati squeaked out a missed field-goal contest and shot a limping old dog out behind the shed.
All this being said, the Steelers will hardly go quietly into that gentle night. Their ownership, front office and coaching staff are too capable and too qualified to sink to the pits of despair like Cincinnati did in the 1990's and like the Cleveland Browns are still stuck in today. They will rebuild quickly and fill the gaps, but they do face an aged roster, salary cap issues, and a spoiled yet disgruntled fan base. The time is ripe for the Bengals to rise up and be somebody when it comes to the annual playoff picture, and so far the youngsters are getting comfortable becoming regulars at the post-season party.
I know how pretentious it sounds to complain about the lack of style in which the Bengals achieved a playoff spot, but I had really braced myself for either a glorious victory or a heart-wrenching loss. Instead, I kind of shrugged and nodded. Perhaps when they win the division next year by knocking off another team firmly within their twilight years, the Ravens, I will get that signature win I crave so much. I just want an indelible image I can replay to the world over and over again that says “what you see before you is a good Bengals team winning a game that really matters, so suck it.” Until then, I will be happy for their successes, but still not quite satisfied.
Mojokong—whether a landform is called a mountain may depend on local usage.