You knew it was going to play out this way. If you didn't, you've had your head in the sand as a Bengals fan for the past decade.
In a bizarre and ironic twist of fate, the Cincinnati Bengals will face the Pittsburgh Steelers for the third time in 2015 at 8:15 p.m. EST Saturday night. This time it's different though, as it's all on the line in a win-or-go-home scenario in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. The former will host the latter in a battle of bad blood caused by cheap shots, injuries and sour feelings after important losses. While the Bengals have gained a bit of traction in the rivalry during their current mini-dynasty, the perception and reality is that the Steelers own the Bengals.
Even though these two squads have faced each other in the AFC Central and eventual North division for decades, the hatred between them has really bred over the past decade. In 2005, the Bengals stole the division crown from the Steelers, prompting what should have been a change of the guard in the AFC North. As Cincinnati left Heinz Field on that December 4th afternoon a decade ago, they wiped their cleats with Terrible Towels, fueling hatred from all those associated with the Black and Yellow.
What ensued was the hit on Carson Palmer 34 days later that totally changed the tide of the Bengals franchise, as well as a slew of other wounded players on both teams. Threats, off-field fights in Las Vegas and pre-game scuffles have now become part and parcel of the rivalry. The outcome of this Saturday will etch another chapter forming more hard feelings from one team.
As Josh Kirkendall aptly wrote earlier on Monday, the history between the clubs, even in the Marvin Lewis renaissance, is lopsided. The Bengals' 8-19 record against the Steelers in Lewis' tenure, including the playoffs, doesn't exactly scream confidence, nor do the two meager wins by the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium when playing the Steelers and similarly unfortunate overall record in primetime under Marvin Lewis.
From a fan point of view, a Homer Simpson-like groan seemed to permeate through social media and the Cincy Jungle comment sections when it was announced who Cincinnati would be facing in this year's Wild Card game. How will the Bengals beat one of the lone teams that has had their number as the franchise has continued to rise from the ashes created pre-2003? Moreover, how would they beat said team in a venue and atmosphere in which the Steelers have come in and repeatedly defeated them?
In my time at Cincy Jungle, I've come across many reader attitudes and viewpoints--all of which are refreshing. When we passed along the announcement of the Bengals hosting the Steelers, we noticed a fearful tone from our readers. Some proclaimed their Bengals fandom might be at stake because of the emotional drain that would inevitably come in a potential Bengals loss. Drastic? Sure. Understandable? Somewhat, yes.
Some of those aforementioned reader points of view have painted me as a bit of a cynic when it comes to writing about the Bengals in my posts, or talking about them while participating in the Inside the Jungle podcast. While it's not necessarily a stigma I enjoy carrying, I suppose it's understandable, given my 27 years of watching this team play football.
I'm telling you now, Bengals fans, don't be afraid of what's ahead on Saturday night.
What else is there to lose?
Another playoff game? Continuing to be the whipping boys at the hands of the Steelers? Sure, their boisterous fan base will be relentless with the insults, but what's so different about that? After all, Pittsburgh's team and its fans got their postseason wish, both in making the tournament and who they are facing in the opening round. If you don't believe me, have a look at what some of them are saying about the upcoming game. With Lewis' 0-6 playoff record entering Saturday, the "choker" stigma in primetime and the playoffs, another loss just keeps the status quo, in terms of reputation.
But, a win against the Goliath of the division and conference could erase many of the past stigmas associated with the Cincinnati Bengals. A few of the past years upon entering the postseason, the Bengals were looked at as favorites, particularly in 2012 and 2013. Now, with a backup quarterback potentially taking the snaps for Cincinnati and their reputation already tarnished, most don't think they have a shot against a team that has beaten them so many times over the past 13 Marvin Lewis-led years. On one hand, if they don't, it might elicit little more than a frustrated shrug. On the other hand, they have a lot to gain with a win--confidence for the rest of the postseason would probably be the biggest notch in the belt.
Pittsburgh is depleted and are turning the ball over:
A major reason as to why the Bengals' offense struggled last season and in the Wild Card game against the Colts was due to the absences of Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert. Their returns have made all the difference for Cincinnati this year, with the two combining for 17 touchdowns and 1,431 receiving yards. But, hey, Gary Barnidge is a far better tight end than Eifert, AKA little more than a check-down option, right, Steelers fans? (We joke, that's a comment from Behind the Steel Curtain).
Give Pittsburgh credit: they fought through major injuries on offense to end the season on a statistical hot streak. After they lost Le'Veon Bell in the first matchup against Cincinnati (which prompted a re-fueling of the rivalry for the rematch), they leaned on veteran DeAngelo Williams to tote the rock. The former Carolina Panthers standout had a great 2015 in relief of Bell, but he suffered an ankle injury last week against the Browns, paving the way for the unproven Fitzgerald Toussaint. Recent reports have Williams as day-to-day this week with a possibility of playing.
For all of the points, yards and big plays, the Steelers have turned the ball over nine times over the past four games. They have also forced nine turnovers, allowing them overcome those issues, but the fact remains that they're being careless with the football. Pittsburgh has also suffered through four total turnovers in two games against the Bengals, including three in their loss at Heinz Field back on November 1st.
Both quarterbacks give the Bengals a solid chance:
Now, hear me out for a second. Based on his play this year, it's obvious Cincinnati's best chance at beating the Steelers is with a healthy Andy Dalton under center. And, even through his struggles and the frustrations he has given Bengals fans in his five seasons, Bengals fans have to be pulling for Dalton in the postseason. He's got the character you want of a franchise quarterback and he has put in the work, which has resulted in a near-MVP like campaign. Fans want to see Dalton lead the Bengals to their first playoff victory since 1991 and do so against the hated Steelers.
But, much like the above-mentioned sentiment of having nothing to lose, the fact remains that Dalton is winless in the postseason. 2015 seems like the best shot for Dalton and this team to finally win a playoff game, but the stench of an 0-4 record in the playoffs lingers.
McCarron has played pretty well, considering the situation he was thrown into and the lack of starter-like snaps he had taken before Dalton's injury. The second-year quarterback finished 2015 with six touchdowns against two interceptions, along with a 66.4 completion percentage and a 97.1 quarterback rating. He had a 2-1 record as a starter, with the only loss in overtime to the now No. 1 seed in the AFC.
It would be great for the Bengals to have Dalton back on Saturday, even though it seems sketchy at best right now. But, if he isn't, McCarron has been playing well enough for the Bengals to win every game he has started since Dalton left the lineup. And, if you're wondering about McCarron's ability to deal with such a big stage, you can point to the solid performance on Monday Night Football (if you ignore the final play), as well as the two National Championship teams he quarterbacked at Alabama just a few years ago.