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Bengals-Steelers Week 6 meeting more of a litmus test than rivalry game for Cincinnati

The Bengals host the Steelers this weekend in a critical division showdown. The rivalry is one thing, but it can’t distract from the litmus test Cincinnati faces on Sunday.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Steelers week.

You know this. You’ve KNOWN this.

It’s hard to miss.

The radio talks about it, local television tries to relate to it, and the interwebs are saturated with it. Sports Illustrated once called it The Nastiest Rivalry in the NFL, featuring linebacker Caleb Miller knocking out Hines Wardthe prick with a condescending smile who applied cheap tactics with blindside blocks — on the cover.

This cover story, mostly examining Cincinnati’s 28-20 win over the Steelers in late September 2006 (after which we asked if the “Steelers were feeling sorry for themselves”), came out long before Vontaze Burfict played in college, before Steelers players threatened to “paint that boi on sight,” before Joey Porter mouthed off at the Bengals, causing Adam Jones to overreact (actually he’s been doing that and jumping players like Levi Jones at Las Vegas casinos for a while), before Mike Tomlin jawed at Reggie Nelson — who had his hair yanked by coach Mike Munchak in another game. Or was it the same game? Who can keep up?

Nothing else can be said to emotionally levitate this rivalry. No feelings stirred or emotions expressed. We could rant and rave about how much the Steelers suck, or how nauseous Steelers fans can be. The rivalry between these teams was once defined as nasty, and has festered cancerously in recent years. Colossal hits that once imprinted week-long bruises started threatening individual seasons with torn ligaments or broken jaws, if not careers. Ending a career is never purposeful, but the punishment being waged carries explosive momentum.

Biter rivalries have existed long before the Bengals and Steelers, from the 49ers (or Eagles) and Cowboys, Eagles and Giants, Patriots and Colts, Bears and Packers, Cowboys and Steelers, or the Raiders and Steelers. There’s nothing special about this one. Even the Browns and Bengals had an unconquerable rivalry (at least in our minds) that led to one of the most iconic moments in Bengals history:

You know about this rivalry against the Steelers. You’ve breathed it, lived it and emotionally reacted to it. It’s not going away anytime soon.

While this rivalry adds emotional fuel for players and fans (and stories for the media) Sunday’s game against the Steelers is really a litmus test for the Bengals for a number of reasons. There’s much to overcome:

  • Pittsburgh is the dominant leader in the division — they’ve won the AFC North championship in three of the last four years, and reached the postseason in four consecutive seasons.
  • Pittsburgh has won six straight against Cincinnati, and nine out of the last 10. Only four of those 10 losses were one possession wins.
  • Since Marvin Lewis became the Bengals head coach in 2003, Cincinnati has only won eight of their last 32 (.250) against Pittsburgh. NOTE: Dave Shula went 1-8 against the Steelers; Sam Wyche went 10-6.

Cincinnati enters Sunday’s game with momentum, coming off a powerful comeback win over the Miami Dolphins, building on a narrative not unlike a resistance to losing. They’ve staged comebacks against the Colts, Falcons, and Dolphins, hung-on by a thread against Baltimore, compiling an improbable 4-1 record. They’re winning games they’ve normally lost. A resistance to losing.

Andy Dalton is on-pace to have a career year in yards and touchdowns (38) — it’s surprising he’s only surpassed 30 touchdowns once in his career (2013). A.J. Green is on-pace for a career-high 16 touchdowns and Tyler Boyd is on-pace to have a career year in, well, everything. Geno Atkins is adding to his Hall-of-Fame resume, while rookies Sam Hubbard and Jessie Bates are making impressions of their own. Defensively the Bengals are on the edge of a bi-polar personality — they bend and break, but they’re building late momentum to hold off opposing offenses just enough to inspire Cincinnati’s offense. Miami was a great matchup for the defense, touchdowns and stops, but it felt like an aberration more than a trend. Perhaps I’m wrong. In fact, I often am.

But, Pittsburgh is a walking shit-show. They were 1-2-1 at one point, tying the Cleveland Browns during the regular season opener, with losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers secured wins over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons, both of whom have a combined 3-6 record. In addition, they’ve had a migraine-inducing experience with the Le’Veon Bell’s contract situation and unstable Antonio Brown’s drama (most recently, lawsuits). They have their demons to deal with.

If Cincinnati becomes AFC North champions, with grand plans beyond first-round byes, it all starts here. Week 6 against the Steelers; Steelers week, if you will. The rivalry is the rivalry — which might transition from a player-fueled narrative to one that the media pile-drives into the ground (a la, mullets).

This is just one game. An important one game in the division and at home. You have to win those. You definitely have to win the games against Pittsburgh. Not for pride. Not for a rivalry. It’s about the bigger picture. Although, it would be nice to see the Bengals kick the Steelers’ ass.