For any Bengals fan, this week has already run the gamut of emotions and it's only Thursday. On Sunday, the finest regular season in almost 30 years concluded with a win over the hapless Baltimore Ravens, yet the city moped out of bed on Monday, still depressed about playing Pittsburgh again to start the postseason.
For 24 hours, Cincinnati was punked out, scared to even watch.
Then on Tuesday, a few rays of sunshine poked through the sudden winter and we remembered once more that this is a game played by mortal men and that maybe we don't know everything. You can toss your statistics and your six Super Bowl trophies on the stage and rub our collective noses in it, point to AJ McCarron, mock his inexperience and show us slow-motion footage of Kim Von Oelhoffen crumpling Carson Palmer's knee again and again, but the Bengals are still showing up in pads on Saturday night, ready for a bare-knuckle affair whether you like it or not.
How dare we as a microculture allow the Pittsburgh Steelers to permeate into our psyche to the point that we brace for a loss rather than hope for a win. How short we sell the athletes that represent our town when we shun them our support before their chance to prove it on the field. Some locals have hardened to the point where they now laugh and scorn the team that let them down one too many times; those who may no longer even know how to properly celebrate a victory.
The Steelers have a nuclear-grade passing attack with receivers who scorch the grass they run on. Big Ben is at his best ever and I haven't seen Todd Haley yell at anyone lately which typically means things are going well for the offense he calls. For a while, they were putting up 30 points a game routinely and punts became a rarity. The sailing hasn't been quite as smooth lately, though, as two grossly inferior opponents frustrated the seemingly invincible heavyweight and lured the Steelers into mistakes. The waters are going to be a lot choppier this week.
The Bengals have not been a letdown since the McCarron experiment was forced to begin. While he has been something of a mollycoddle under center with plentiful throw aways and soft sacks, he still demonstrates considerable promise with an above-average arm and pretty decent accuracy to remain a deep threat and not just a check-down artist. His trained hesitancy to avoid turnovers at all costs allows for a manageable game—albeit occasionally frustrating, but for a rookie backup, that's as good as it gets. Even the loss at Denver was extremely commendable on a lot of levels for the youngster.
Also, this Bengals defense looks fierce. I know the Steelers sliced them up with Heath Miller on third down last time the teams met in Week 14, and they did wear down in Denver, but at the moment, it's the best feature to a very balanced roster. The juice is Vontaze Burfict. Love him or hate him, he brings an energy to the field that cannot be taught and he impacts the game on nearly every snap, even on plays where he makes no contact with the ball carrier. When at his best, he is an absolute wrecking ball and lifts his teammates with his tenacity.
Adding to that, the names of the running backs left to suit up in Pittsburgh are obscure thanks to injuries to not one but two pro-bowl caliber starters. If DeAngelo Williams can't go on a bum ankle, it will be no tea party for his replacement Fitzgerald Toussaint, who sounds like the richest man in the world, but is apparently just a practice-squad running back who will soon be eaten by tigers.
No one needs reminded of the recent past and the significance of this particular point in the Bengals' season, but perhaps one does need reminding of the joy in life from time to time. Remember when Cincinnati was smiling in the midst of a colorful, sunny autumn and an 8-0 record? Remember beating Seattle in that crazy comeback? Remember how long we once waited to even have this playoff chance at all? Spoiled and scarred, we turn our heads with trepidation and fear of another loss. As fans, as people, our doubt becomes real because we wear it. We project inferiority, self-loathing and it robs us of the sweetest of our enthusiasms. The Steelers and their fans bathe in all of that hate; they drink it up!
Not this time.
Five years ago, I purchased an already-aged Yorkshire Stingo and earmarked it as my victory ale for the first Marvin Lewis playoff win. It has sat in the dark of that cabinet since, retreating further and further as more useful bottles move to the forefront. On Saturday night, it will sit on the coffee table and watch both its reason to exist and its reason to die. After sitting in that cabinet for so long, the beer itself may not even be drinkable anymore, but it will be the taste of victory nonetheless at so very long last. It's more fun this way; I believe in the Bengals because I want to.
Bengals 24, Steelers 22