Carson Palmer summed it up best in an interview with former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason just days after a knee injury ended his season early in the 2006 AFC Wild Card Playoff game against Pittsburgh.
“We all hate Pittsburgh.”
The teams have had some memorable contests throughout the years, and the challenge now is to decide which games really stand out among the others. Everyone has their favorites, so the challenge of narrowing it down to a handful of games was not an easy one. But these five games stand head and shoulders above the rest.
Sept. 24, 2006. Bengals 28, Steelers 20
This is the game that made that infamous Sports Illustrated cover, and it came less than eight months after former Bengal Kimo von Oelhoffen rolled into Palmer's knee as he let go of a pass early in the AFC Wild Card Playoff matchup between the two teams.
Palmer had to endure eight months of exhausting rehabilitation, but he finally got his chance for revenge against the team that sent him into an offseason of hell.
The game featured a series of jarring hits and physical plays, a carryover from that playoff game and staple of all future showdowns between these teams. It was a sloppy game that featured five combined interceptions, three combined lost fumbles and a blocked field goal.
And while the Cincinnati signal-caller was nowhere near perfect on this day, he did throw two touchdown passes T.J. Houshmandzadeh less than one minute apart midway through the fourth quarter to help rally the Bengals to a 28-20 victory over the defending Super Bowl champions.
Palmer finished with three fumbles and two interceptions, and was sacked six times. But he also completed18 of 26 passes for 193 yards and four touchdowns. His other two touchdown passes went to Chris Henry. After the game, Palmer denied that his injury provided any extra motivation.
"I didn't take anything personal into this game," he said. "I didn't come in here thinking, 'It's payback time, let's get these guys.' I came in here thinking it's a divisional game and let's get a win."
"It shows how good your team is when your quarterback doesn't play well and you get a win."
Oct. 11, 1998. Bengals 25, Steelers 20
The Bengals did not have many highlights during the decade of the 1990s, but one of the few that they did have came against the Steelers in a game that featured an unlikely comeback by former Pittsburgh quarterback Neil O’Donnell.
O’Donnell took over on his own 7-yard line with less than two minutes remaining, the Bengals trailing by a score of 20-18 and no timeouts left. In a drive that featured a 50-yard pass completion to Carl Pickens on fourth down, O’Donnell moved Cincinnati into field goal range at Pittsburgh’s 25-yard line.
With time running out, O’Donnell faked spiking the ball to stop the clock for the apparent field-goal attempt, and instead found Pickens open for the go-ahead touchdown with 14 seconds left.
"Believe it or not, we made that up right there on the spot," Pickens said. "He faked (the spike) and when I saw that he didn't throw it, I just took off."
O'Donnell finished the day with 20 completions on 26 attempts for 298 yards and three touchdowns. Two of those scoring strikes went to Darnay Scott, who found paydirt on passes of 44 and 30 yards. The game-winner to Pickens gave the Bengals only their third victory in their last 15 games against the Steelers.
Dec. 13, 1981. Bengals 17, Steelers 10
This was the season when the Bengals would finally break through the Steel Curtain on their way to the AFC Championship and their first Super Bowl berth, a game they would eventually lose to the San Francisco 49ers by a score of 28-21.
Cincinnati rode the arm of quarterback Kenny Anderson to a defeat of the Steelers in Three Rivers Stadium that gave the Bengals the AFC Central Division title. Anderson completed 21 of 35 passes for 215 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Anderson led the NFL in passing that year, and finished with a quarterback rating of 98.5.
"That Steelers game was one of the most satisfying of my career,” Anderson later said. “It really felt amazing given the ramifications that came from that game. It was the springboard for us going to our first Super Bowl."
Anderson found Cris Collinsworth eight times for 90 yards, and hooked up with Isaac Curtis and the little-used Steve Kreider on scoring strikes, and Pete Johnson ground out 49 yards rushing on 18 carries to lead the way for the Bengals.
Jan. 8, 2006. Steelers 31, Bengals 17
The intense rivalry that is the Cincinnati Bengals versus the Pittsburgh Steelers began in 1970 and the teams have played twice every year since then, with the exception of the strike-shortened 1982 season.
Through all of the ups and downs that both teams have experienced through the years, it has hard to believe that the teams never met in the playoffs until the AFC Wildcard Playoff game on January 8, 2006.
That was supposed to be the year of the Cincinnati Bengals and was without a doubt Cincinnati’s best team since its last Super Bowl team. Palmer led a powerful offense that featured a trio of talented receivers in Chad Johnson, Houshmandzadeh and Henry, and the Bengals boasted one of the top defenses in the NFL. Cincinnati was pitted against a Steelers team that had looked vulnerable during the season and had struggled to make the playoffs.
It took just two plays for the Bengals’ promising season to come to a screeching halt. The von Oelhoffen hit took Palmer out with a shattered knee. But, before he got hit, Palmer launched a beautiful pass to Henry that was good for a 66-yard gain. Henry also suffered a knee injury on the play and was lost for the day.
"I knew right away that it was bad," said Palmer. "I felt my whole knee pop. I didn't feel a lot of pain. It was just a sickening feeling because I knew what it was and that my season was over."
Cincinnati rode the emotion of the loss to a 17-7 lead, only to see the Steelers storm back with 24 straight points for the victory. John Kitna, playing in place of the injured Palmer, finished the day with 24 completions in 40 attempts for 197 yards and two interceptions. He was also sacked four times.
The loss began yet another rebuilding period for the Bengals that culminated with Palmer’s demand for a release from his contract. His eventual trade to the Oakland Raiders began a new chapter in Cincinnati Bengals’ history that is yet to play itself out.
January 10, 2016. Steelers 18, Bengals 16
There was little doubt which game would occupy the number 1 position in the history of the Bengals-Steelers rivalry, although most fans would just as soon forget that it ever happened.
The Bengals went into the game having been to the playoffs five times in the previous six games, yet failing to win a single playoff game during that time.
And things did not look promising for Cincinnati this time around, what with a thumb injury to quarterback Andy Dalton landing him on the disabled list with three games left in the regular season. But backup quarterback AJ McCarron proved up to the task, and the Bengals hosted Pittsburgh in the one of the AFC Wild Card Playoff matchups.
Cincinnati had just taken the lead on the strength of a 25-yard touchdown pass from McCarron to A.J. Green, and a failed two-point conversion attempt left the Bengals clinging to a 16-15 lead.
With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the sidelines with an injured shoulder, Pittsburgh was forced to turn to backup quarterback Landry Jones to try to pull out the victory, but his first pass was intercepted by Bengals’ linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Cincinnati had a first down at its own 26-yard line with 1:36 to play and it looked like the Bengals’ playoff drought would finally come to an end.
Cincinnati was already in field goal range for kicker Mike Nugent, and all it had to do was run as much time off the clock as possible before kicking an insurance field goal. Better still, a first down would probably end the game.
Instead, running back Jeremy Hill was stripped by Pittsburgh’s Ryan Shazier after a six-yard gain on first down, and the Steelers recovered at their own 9-yard line with 1:23 remaining.
Roethlisberger, bad shoulder and all, trotted back on to the field and promptly drove the Steelers to their own 41-yard line before the drive stalled. But he connected with Antonio Brown on fourth-and-3 for a first down at the Cincinnati 47 with 22 seconds left.
When Roethlisberger tried to hit Brown short across the middle, Burfict led with his shoulder but hit Brown in the head. The 15-yard penalty moved Pittsburgh into long field-goal range for Chris Boswell with 18 seconds left. The ball was spotted at the Cincinnati 32-yard line, which would have been a 49-yard attempt at that point.
Steelers’ assistant coach Joey Porter came on to the field and immediately started verbally assailing Bengals’ players. When Cincinnati’s Adam Jones took exception and pushed Porter, he was called for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty, which moved the ball to the Cincinnati 17.
Porter, who had no business being on the field in the first place, was himself in violation of Rule 13, Section 1 of the 2015 NFL Rule Book and should have been punished by a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Instead, the penalty went against Jones and the rest, as they say, is history.
Burfict and Jones were not the only players committing penalties on this unforgettable day. The two teams combined for 221 penalty yards and gave new meaning to the NFL’s new black and blue division.