Believe it or not, the Bengals’ 2016 season felt promising at one time. They started out 1-0 on the season after beating the New York Jets, whom many of us thought were going to be better than they actually turned out to be (currently 4-9). The following week, the Bengals played the Pittsburgh Steelers. As we all know by now, they lost, but the team went into the game with the expectation that it would be a hard fought game. The Bengals lost but weren’t as far from a win as they have been in some other games this year.
Throughout the majority of the game, the Bengals kept the Steelers within a touchdown. They never held the lead at any point, but it wasn’t until late in the third quarter that the Steelers went up by more than a touchdown (17-6). Things started to look bad for the Bengals before the score margin was increased even more by the mid-fourth quarter to 24-9. The Bengals answered with a touchdown pass to Giovani Bernard to bring the game within eight points, but a fumble (that we’re not convinced was a fumble) negated an admirable effort and left the Bengals with their first loss of the season.
We all know about the Steelers’ historical dominance over the Bengals. In addition to holding a 57-37 all time record over the Bengals, they have also only lost eight of the 28 meetings between the teams during Marvin Lewis’ tenure in Cincinnati. More recently, the Bengals are currently on a three game losing streak against the Steelers that includes the infamous playoff game from January.
By all accounts, the Bengals would have won that game if not for a complete meltdown within the final one minute and 36 seconds. Blatant personal fouls and an inability to hold onto the football in the most crucial moments defined the Bengals’ meltdown and cast a very bright spotlight on some of the more frustrating issues throughout the team.
The last time the Bengals beat the Steelers was November 1, 2015, the first of two matchups between the teams in the 2015 regular season. It was a close 16-10 affair that saw poor performances out of both Andy Dalton and Ben Roethlisberger. But, Roethlisberger performed slightly worse, throwing interceptions to the Bengals on two of the Steelers’ last three drives, giving the Bengals the momentum they needed to score 10 points and jump out to a 16-10 lead.
The Steelers weren’t quick enough on their final drive and ran out of time before they found the endzone. It resulted in the Bengals’ only victory over the Steelers since Week 2 of the 2013 season.
Bengals fans might remember the 24-16 loss to the Steelers earlier this season as one of the games for which star linebacker Vontaze Burfict was suspended early in the season, due to his actions at the end of the aforementioned 2015 playoff game, combined with other NFL safety rule violations. It’s hard to say that his absence was a huge issue for the Bengals in that game, because down the stretch, the Bengals’ defense was arguably the only reason the team even had a chance to win the game. But, you can’t deny that Burfict has been absolutely lighting the NFL up for the last six weeks and has a large impact on the rest of the defense whenever he's on the field. Therefore, his presence could be a huge boost for the team this week. And as the Steelers certainly don't like Burfict, all eyes will be on #55.
In his Week 4 return against the Dolphins, Burfict was rather ineffective (two tackles), as you might expect after very limited practice throughout much of the offseason and sitting out for three weeks of the regular season. But, since then, he has recorded 69 tackles, seven pass deflections, two sacks, and two interceptions, returned for a total of 54 yards. His tackling numbers alone rank No. 21 in the NFL, which is ridiculously impressive for a player who missed nearly a quarter of the season.
Having a player like him this week who will also be emotionally motivated to impress should be huge. He just needs to keep his emotions in check and play the game as he has been this season. A clean, hard fought game is what Burfict absolutely must have on Sunday in Cincinnati. Will it be enough for the struggling 5-7-1 Bengals to take down a Steelers team motivated for their highly likely shot at the playoffs? Who knows. But, his presence should definitely help. In addition to being the team that you know Burfict is itching to play after missing the first matchup earlier in the season, a win this week would make the season feel much better for Bengals fans who haven’t had a lot to cheer about in 2016. The Bengals need to win out to avoid a losing record this year, but potentially playing spoiler to the Steelers’ playoff hopes is just icing on the (very bland) cake.