For nine months, the Bengals have been wondering how a Wild Card game against their bitter rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, got away from them. After seeming to have their first postseason win since 1991 sewn up, a variety of factors caused the team and its fan base to experience familiar heartbreak.
Both teams face off this Sunday for the first time since the physical and emotionally-charged playoff loss. One of the topics atop conversations surrounding the clubs is that of retaliation, as the past handful of games fueled the rivalry with a number of injuries and questionable hits by both teams.
However, count Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as one who doesn’t believe there will be dirty play this Sunday.
"That's not who we are," said Roethlisberger via Jeremy Fowler of ESPN. "It's a physical football game and a physical division. That's what we expect, a physical football game -- clean."
While, it’s refreshing to hear the leader of Pittsburgh’s football team publicly say that, it’s merely words and it would be bucking a recent trend. Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, who is missing Week 2 with a suspension, has had two knee injuries in the last two games he played against the Bengals, while Mike Mitchell has seemed to target Bengals receivers up high on frequent occasions. Throw in Giovani Bernard suffering a concussion from a hit-to-the-head in the Wild Card game and perceived post-injury celebrations from both teams, and you can see how tempers have boiled over.
Two of the more pivotal players in this rivalry from the Bengals won’t be suiting up for Cincinnati this Sunday, as linebacker Vontaze Burfict joins Bell on the suspended list and safety Reggie Nelson is now in Oakland. While the Bengals have been quiet and business-like going into this week, physical play and subsequent jawing will undoubtedly be a major part of this Sunday’s game.
"One of the best defenses in the league," Roethlisberger said of the Bengals’ unit, but also noted the importance of each divisional game—not just those against Cincinnati. "Whether it's the Browns, the Bengals or Ravens, to us they are all big division rivals.”
While the Bengals still have 14 other games to play this season aside from this Sunday, Week 2 does mark an important part of their schedule. Not only does a win get them a leg up in the conference and AFC North division, but it would get them off to a great start in a difficult portion of their 2016 schedule.
It isn’t just the physical aspect both teams will need to rein in on Sunday. One can assume that players on both teams will attempt to goad the opponent into making boneheaded penalties. Playing smarter football was addressed by Mike Brown as the team kicked off training camp this year, so this Sunday provides a big test for the club in that respect.