Though the battles have been heated throughout the past decade, they've reached new levels in recent years. Some would point to Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict as being a big reason why. I would go as far as to say the battles between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh were merely 'heated' affairs prior to Burfict's entrance into the NFL, and once he entered the mix, that was all the matchup needed to turn this rivalry into an inferno of hatred between the AFC North clubs.
That may explain why ESPN's Kevin Seifert included the Steelers and Bengals in his list of the NFL's best rivalries, except he listed it as Burfict alone vs Pittsburgh, ignoring the rest of Cincinnati's squad.
1. Vontaze Burfict vs. all the Pittsburgh Steelers
You could argue that Burfict ended the Steelers' Super Bowl hopes last season. His tackling led to injuries for running back Le'Veon Bell (knee), quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder) and receiver Antonio Brown (concussion) -- the last of which contributed to a three-game suspension for Burfict to start the 2016 season. Burfict's Twitter war with Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams this offseason has fueled the rivalry, and this one appears rooted more in genuine dislike than in gamesmanship. Burfict's playing style implies little regard for the well-being of other players, who have noticed and are fighting back.
Looking at the rest of the list, there's no question Burfict vs the Steelers is the NFL's best rivalry in terms of player vs player or player vs team. Burfict has managed to make this not only pro football's most drama-filled rivalry, but one of the better rivalries you'll see in any sport. Hopefully this year though, that drama is purely due to impressive football plays rather than off-the-field antics or injuries.
Between Burfict's tackle which inadvertently tore Le'Veon Bell's MCL, shot on Antonio Brown and the shoulder injury that occurred to Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers and their fan base despise even the mention of Burfict. Many Steelers fans feel Burfict alone prevented Pittsburgh from reaching their ultimate potential last year, which could have been enough for a Lombardi, whether that's true or not.
While these players may truly be friends, buddies or mere bystanders off the field, many of them hate each other with a passion we've seen go too far over the past year. It's great to see a chippiness and occasional hatred on the field, but it's gotten out of hand to the point that all parties involved need to take a step back and not let this become more than a game of football.
Hating the enemy is fine, but hopefully that hatred will result in less injuries this year after last season saw way too many players on both teams injured during the teams' three matchups.