It's officially on, folks.
While it was eerily quiet from Bengals and Steelers players this week compared to when they faced off a month ago, the relative silence has been broken. For a decade, Cincinnati has harbored hard feelings toward Pittsburgh because a multitude of injuries forced at the hands of the Steelers, ranging from Carson Palmer the last time they faced off in a Wild Card game, to Keith Rivers and Kevin Huber getting their respective jaws cracked on more-than-questionable hits.
Some of the initial shots fired this year in this rivalry came from Pittsburgh, with offensive guard David DeCastro saying "We don't like them and they don't like us", mostly as a result of Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict tackling and causing an injury to Pittsburgh's star running back, Le'Veon Bell. Burfict was also the target of Steelers ire when backup linebacker Vince Williams threatened Burfict over Twitter and the issues boiled over into a pre-game fracas a month ago.
Burfict has shot through any semblance of silence this week, saying after Wednesday's practice. "I hate Pittsburgh. It's not personal. That's just the way it is". Native members of the city might find it difficult to not take the statement personally, especially as Burfict has become a high-profile villain with the team and its fans.
Aside from being involved with the Bell injury, Burfict was also accused of going low on a tackle attempt on Ben Roethlisberger, along with a couple of other plays garnering a near-$70,000 fine from the last matchup. It wasn't the first time Burfict has received scrutiny for questionable plays--he was tagged for a fine after twisting the ankle of Cam Newton after a play last year.
His fellow linebackers are preaching discipline, but are also backing up the defensive leader. "We know that Vontaze is going to come downhill to make plays, so it's going to be another tough-guy game," Vincent Rey said. "We'll do whatever it takes to win. We have to change some stuff because what we did last time wasn't good enough."
Rey Maualuga, whose play has unquestionably raised since Burfict's return midway through this season, also chimed in with a bit more of a zen-like approach. "It's more mental focus than anything else," Maualuga told the media, via The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "If we let that stuff get in the way, that's when the mental errors occur and you lose focus on your assignments. I don't want to say they were more physical in the last game, but we made some crucial errors. We gave them some easy points. I'm not going to say the better team won that day. If we play our game, we'll win."
"Obviously, emotions are going to be flying around because it's a playoff game," Maualuga continued. "Obviously, we have to tone things down. We're not going to create a personal foul to hurt the team. Sometimes, stuff happens because we let our emotions get the best of us. We can't lose our composure. As linebackers, we have to do what makes us successful — and that's playing physical. We are going to play until the whistle is blown."
In an attempt to remedy any more possible fights, penalties and other questionable plays from either team, the NFL has issued a warning to both the Bengals and the Steelers regarding their chippiness and Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report said league executive Troy Vincent sent a video to all playoff teams to emphasize sportsmanship. It's also likely the league will talk to the officiating staff to keep a tight leash on the game. The game referee, John Parry, is the same person who refed the Week 14 matchup between the teams, so he's certainly familiar with the rivalry and hatred between the teams.
Steelers offensive lineman Marcus Gilbert had his Christmas wish granted when the Steelers drew the "choker Bengals" (Gilbert's words). It's unclear whether or not he realized the anger and focus Cincinnati players are utilizing this week. Either way, it should be a fun game to watch on Saturday night.