It’s a title that carries a lot of weight in Bengaldom, but takes a back seat to “Baltimore Sunday” if you ask a Yinzer. It undoubtedly comes with the territory of ownership of a particular “rivalry”.
As it stands, the Bengals are on the short-end-of-the-stick of this tete-a-tete, sporting roughly a 35% win percentage in contests in the triple-digit range. Enough hyphens for you there?
The first go-round of 2020 has a different feel to it. The Cincinnati Bengals employ their third franchise quarterback of the past two decades in Joe Burrow to face-off against an NFL franchise built on stability.
“Just how stable?,” you ask?
With Pittsburgh’s eight win of the season last week against the Cowboys, Mike Tomlin secured his 14th-straight season (every one since he was named their head coach) of a non-losing record. His predecessor, Bill Cowher, only had three losing seasons in his own respective 14 years as the Steelers’ head coach, with none dipping below the six-win mark.
Of all of the teams in the NFL, the Cincinnati Bengals have played the Pittsburgh Steelers the most. That’s probably why the Brown family has publicly stated that they marvel at Pittsburgh’s model of stability and success—particularly when it comes to quarterbacks and head coaches.
This envy was used as a reasoning for keeping Marvin Lewis around The Queen City for 16 years. It’s just a bit ironic that the Bengals would rather chase the model rather than create the standard.
But, I digress.
As has been the storyline for the Bengals in every one of the previous 24 games under Zac Taylor, this Sunday is a crossroads game. It’s an opportunity to show the NFL world that the team has arrived under Joe Burrow—similar in some ways to Lewis’ 2003 Bengals’ team (though not at quarterback)—and won’t back down in the biggest games on the annual schedule.
Burrow seems poised to take up the AFC North champ mantle from Ben Roethlisberger in the near future, but No. 7 for Pittsburgh isn’t going down without a fight. The Midwest’s version of the showdown at the OK Corral has its most recent episode take place at Heinz Field this Sunday evening.
On paper, nearly everything points to the 8-0 Steelers having a stranglehold on a “rivalry” in which they’ve won the past 10 contests. Roethlisberger, who has played well after missing almost all of 2019, pulled a patented “Undertaker-dot-GIF” play this week, miraculously returning to play on Sunday from both knee and potential Covid-19 ailments.
James Conner is a capable back, while Pittsburgh employs a myriad of pass-catching options. And, as reliable as the Allegheny River’s flow, the Steelers’ offensive and defensive fronts are juggernauts with which to be dealt.
As they tend to do, the Steelers have been able to move on from the seemingly-immense losses of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown in recent years. Now, it’s JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and rookie Chase Claypool who terrorize opposing defenses.
The undefeated Steelers seem to be solid all-around, but they’re not invulnerable. In recent weeks, against opponents with differing skill levels, they’ve nearly become imperfect in the win-loss column.
I spoke with former Steelers defensive back, Ike Taylor, this week and called the Steelers “an imperfect team with a perfect record”. Taylor disagreed, noting that the 2020 Steelers have yet to play their best ball.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.
Glass houses can’t throw stones, though. The 2-5-1 Bengals could/should/would have about three additional wins, if not for the ghosts of Cincinnati past.
Burrow has had them in nearly every game, but familiar stumbles have plagued the road to success. Yet, there is a growing sentiment that Cincinnati is growing before our eyes.
A roster completely churned up because of a 2-14 record in 2019 and the massive amount of injuries incurred so far this year have somehow shown steps towards championship maturity. Are they big enough shoe-prints to knock off the Steelers?
Back in 2003, the boisterous and rejuvenated Chad Johnson made the proclamation that the upstart Bengals were going to slay the 9-0 Kansas City Chiefs. Cincinnati was a pedestrian 4-4 at the time and the talking heads brushed 85’s prediction off as little more than pre-social media headline material.
There are a lot of parallels this Sunday, even if this one isn’t in the friendly confines of Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati is a massive underdog and they face a familiar, unbeaten foe.
Unfortunately, the Bengals’ roster is in a state of both improvement and decline. Sam Hubbard and others are returning this week, but Cincinnati is extremely thin at defensive back.
In this matchup that far more resembles chess than checkers, it’s a bunch of weaknesses versus strengths and vice-versa. And, the question of the week is: Are the Steelers as good as their record indicates, or are the Bengals better than theirs would note?
Look at the records, the head-to-head win-loss numbers and you’ll see an answer that you don’t want to see, as Bengals fans. And, as it goes in these uber-important AFC North games, they’ll need to prove us wrong before we start to heavily rely upon them again.
Quite honestly, I was ready to pick the Bengals this week. The aforementioned talking heads had me pumped and I was ready to buy into the hype.
However, I’ve seen this song-and-dance before. I know the history here and wholeheartedly believe that Big Ben is licking his chops at the lack of defensive backs Cincinnati can employ.
Unfortunately, I see Week 10 as yet another lesson in a year of necessary maturation for the Bengals, as they take baby steps towards a championship run. It really is in the lack of capable defensive backs that makes the difference.
Bengals 33, Steelers 40
AC — Working on my backpedal.