It all started in November during Cincinnati's 16-10 win in Pittsburgh, when Vontaze Burfict responded to Vince Williams' Tweet that said, "I catch Vontaze on south beat im painting that boi on sight." Burfict responded saying, "why wait then, you know where I'm at." Williams later deleted his Tweet.
During pregame warmups on Sunday, Burfict and Williams collided at midfield, causing a pregame scrum between both teams. Pittsburgh's issue was Burfict's perceived celebration after tackling running back Le'Veon Bell, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the teams' first meeting; Burfict has categorically denied intent.
That wasn't all.
Leading into Sunday's game, each team featured players making comments from "there will be blood" to "we don't like them, they don't like us," which predictably translates into normal pregame fodder during an escalating rivalry between division opponents who are annually confronting each other for the division championship.
When the game started, emotions boiled over.
Tyler Eifert with a nice 18 yard grab. Mike Mitchell predictably targeting and flagged. https://t.co/B6PEAIhjSu— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 13, 2015
And this doesn't include dozens of instances where both teams shoved and jawed at each other following plays, with raw emotions taking over social media. Bengals cornerback Adam Jones went off on his Instagram account:
"I'm sitting here looking at the thing on ESPN. I guess Pittsburgh got all gangsters," Jones said. "Mike Tomlin [should] tell his team to shut the f--- up and play football, because ain't nothing gonna happen to [Burfict], on the field or off the field. Dig that. Y'all want to go report something, report that. Bitches."
Steelers Marcus Gilbert responded:
All I want for Christmas is the bengals. Would love to see them in the playoffs where they choke. The talking is done between the lines— Marcus Gilbert (@MarcusGilbert88) December 14, 2015
Then, Jones responded again.
Lmao all these tweets , but when I call you @MarcusGilbert88 you hang up . I'm trying to see what's the problem ..— ADAm Pacman Jones (@REALPACMAN24) December 14, 2015
I hate to say it, but there's something great about rivalry where the players truly hate each other.
However, lost in this beautiful mess was the ignorance of an actual antagonist, suited for originally ignoring the problem, which has led to players taking upon themselves to act.
"That's the NFL's fault for not protecting the players," Whitworth said via Bengals.com in regards to Vince Williams. "After he sent that tweet he should have been suspended or fined or they should have made a stand that you shouldn't do that. Making a threat off the field, in the street, and you do nothing about it in this in this day and age? If he made that threat to me, I've got four small kids and I've got to worry about this guy jumping me? It sparked everything. We're competitive and Bengals-Steelers has always been chippy. But what that almost turned into was out of control. And it was an easy fix. You don't threaten another player's life off-the-field."
According to Pro Football Talk, the Bengals, not just Whitworth, believed "that the NFL at a minimum would issue a warning to Williams." When no actions followed from the league, it made Burfict upset and Sunday's antics were the result.
The intersection between discipline and P.R. continues to be the likely explanation for the league's decision to do nothing. By looking the other way, the NFL kept what was a non-story (on the national level) from becoming a much bigger deal.
Indeed, if the NFL had issued a formal warning to an NFL player for making a death threat against another NFL player, the headlines in mainstream news outlets would have been blaring, and the morning shows and evening news broadcasts would have been devoting real estate to it.
Bengals fans can label the Steelers as dirty -- which is a hardened feeling that dates back to Carson Palmer's injury during the 2005 AFC Wild Card game, among other instances throughout the last 10 years. Steelers fans equally antagonize Bengals fans as being sore losers, claiming to have won six championships singlehandedly (while sitting on a couch and drinking Milwaukee's Best).
None of it matters today.
Each side lost composure at some point, with David DeCastro jamming his meat hooks into Wallace Gilberry's facemask, Antonio Brown taking out Reggie Nelson's knees or Vontaze Burfict seemingly in the center of most shoving matches that occurred.
On another front, this is becoming an old school rivalry. We're not talking about respecting your opponent. There is an actual hatred, which is to an extent, what has made sports exciting.
This is definitely real, and, it's possible the Bengals and Steelers could meet again in the playoffs.