During the 1990s, the Cincinnati Bengals entered their own version of "The Dark Ages". Also known as "The Lost Decade" to some, Mike Brown's football franchise epitomized futility and was known as as one of the worst teams in any professional sport through the span.
However, a ray of hope came in 2003 with the hiring of Super Bowl-winning coach, Marvin Lewis. The former defensive coordinator of the Redskins and Ravens has come in and led the team to what seems to be heading to seven playoff appearances in 13 seasons, while also becoming the franchise leader in wins by a head coach.
Even so, there are a couple of achievements in Lewis' tenure that have yet to be reached. The most obvious is the playoff win drought, giving pundits - and even fans - pause to take the team seriously as January rolls around. Another issue from Lewis' tenure is the disparity between the Bengals and Steelers in the divisional series under his watch. While he has had solid success against the Ravens and Browns, Lewis just hasn't figured out a way crack the Pittsburgh code.
Lewis is just 7-19 (including the playoffs) against Pittsburgh, with just two of those wins coming on the Bengals' home turf of Paul Brown Stadium. It's this records against the Steelers, as well as the lack of playoff success, pointing to Baltimore as Pittsburgh's main rival.
However, with the Ravens struggling in 2015, the Bengals looking to make the postseason for the sixth time in seven years and some unfortunate injuries in the history of this series, the rivalry really looks to be hitting a new level. The animosity truly began around 2005 when the Bengals took the AFC North crown with Carson Palmer at the helm and a variety of big characters at the skill positions.
The animosity between the teams seemed to begin around 2005 when the Bengals took the AFC North crown--their first playoff appearance in 14 years. Anger stemmed from two particular events that took place that year--one from each team. After essentially securing the division with a win at Heinz Field, then-Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh was seen wiping his cleats with "The Terrible Towel" after the win. Needless to say, the gesture didn't sit well with the Pittsburgh players and fans.
Bengals fans definitely remember what ensued after Housh's shoe-wipe. As fate would have it, the Bengals hosted the Steelers in the 2005 Wild Card round and Palmer had his knee torn up on Cincinnati's second offensive play. Obviously, without their Pro Bowl quarterback, the Bengals couldn't pull out the victory and true hatred was bred, even more so than the days of the Steelers near-decapitation of Ken Anderson about 30 years earlier.
The rivalry has continued to grow over the next decade following the Palmer injury. On NFL Network's "Top 10" lists surrounding rivalries, "Joey Porter versus the Bengals" made the countdown, with clips of he and Chad Johnson barking at each other before kickoffs of various contests. Truly, the list goes on and on with the bullying, big hits, injuries and other antics from both teams.
Keith Rivers had his jaw broken by Hines Ward, ending his 2008 rookie season and the play prompted a league rule change. Porter sought out former Bengals offensive tackle Levi Jones in Las Vegas and reportedly sucker-punched him while with his entourage one offseason. In 2013, Bengals punter Kevin Huber was crushed on a more-than questionable block on a punt return, breaking his jaw and a vertebrae. Then, in the last game of the 2014 season, Le'Veon Bell hyperextended his knee playing against the Bengals and was unable to play in the Steelers' Wild Card playoff game against the Ravens. The Steelers lost that game to the Ravens. This season, a tackle by Vontaze Burfict caused Bell to be lost for the rest of the season with a significant knee injury.
It's the latter two occurrences that have had the Steelers particularly chippy coming into this Sunday's re-match at PBS. After Bell was lost for the rest of the season, Pittsburgh linebacker Vince Williams tweeted out that he would personally seek out Burfict and give him some physical punishment off off-the-field. This was just another classy gesture from a player associated with Steelers Nation in a long line of them over the many years.
Also earlier this week, Steelers offensive guard David DeCastro made the comment to the media: "They don't like us and we don't like them," obviously referring to the recent chippiness. Adding some intrigue to DeCastro's comments was his possible landing in Cincinnati in the 2012 Draft. The Bengals had a shot to grab him, but moved back in the first round, grabbed another pick that became defensive tackle Brandon Thompson and took Kevin Zeitler with that first round pick. DeCastro was promptly scooped up by Pittsburgh.
In response to some of the recent comments by Steelers players, Dre Kirkpatrick also spoke up, essentially saying they're experiencing sour grapes and both teams need to let their play talk on the field. "That's my teammate," Kirkpatrick said of Burfict this week. "I'm going to do whatever it takes to protect my teammate. I'm not going to let get cheap shots or anything like that if I'm there."
"Like I said, we know what time it is, what type of game this is," Kirkpatrick said, via The Cincinnati Enquirer. "Hopefully we can keep our composure. Hopefully he (Burfict) can keep his composure and let them be the village idiots."
Some Bengals fans have expressed worry about the potential for cheap shots and dirty plays, while others have given Pittsburgh the benefit of the doubt. Such was the case on our Inside the Jungle podcast on Wednesday night. There is an old football adage stating that when guys play the game scared, that's when injuries occur.
For a long time, the Steelers have prided themselves on being bullies in the NFL. Using brash talk, physicality and a decorated franchise history, they have imposed their will on teams more often than not. But, what is it bullies like to do? Push people around and threaten them while puffing out their chests, right? And, what happens when someone punches the bully back? They complain, make excuses and make more cheap threats. Is this what the Steelers are trying to prove?
Cincy Jungle contributor Cody Tewmey stated his faith in Pittsburgh head coach, Mike Tomlin on Inside the Jungle. Tewmey feels Tomlin is widely-respected around the league for a variety of reasons and won't let his players do anything to jeopardize careers or incur personal foul penalties that could lead to a loss.
While I personally have a lot of respect for what Tomlin has done with the Steelers, we are talking about a guy who "accidentally" stood in the way of a would-be Jacoby Jones kickoff return for a touchdown and got in the face of Reggie Nelson last year after his tackle on Bell caused him to leave the game with a knee injury. I'm certain Tomlin isn't telling his players to hurt anyone, but I'm also confident he's been preaching physical play against the Bengals.
Bengals linebacker Chris Carter even said this week that when he was with Pittsburgh, Steelers players were told to "spend extra time in the weight room during Bengals week because the hitting in the subsequent game was going to be among the most intense they'd feel in their careers," according to ESPN's Coley Harvey and Jeremy Fowler.
You want to believe there won't be any cheap shots or following up on the comments made about the Bengals by Steelers players, but, with certain members of the Bengals' offense claiming Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell threatened A.J. Green last month after laying a big hit on Marvin Jones, and a big hit on Green in the 2014 season finale knocked him out of the playoffs with a concussion, it's hard to give the benefit of the doubt t the Steelers. This is especially the case due to the history here.
In all likelihood, these are bully scare tactics trying to make the talented Cincinnati receiving options think twice when going across the middle or things said to have Bengals defenders keep their head on a swivel. Whatever the case, Sunday is bound to be an interesting matchup between two teams who admittedly don't like each other.