Game Preview: Bengals vs Steelers – 50 years of hurt

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The Bengals and Steelers meet again this Sunday, with Pittsburgh comfortably 65-35 ahead in the series. With exactly 100 grudge matches behind them, there’s no better time to look back across five decades at the key moments that define one of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries.

Credit: Sports Illustrated

The 1970s

#1: A rivalry is born
Prior to 1970, the Steelers were members of the NFL and the Bengals were
in the AFL. With the league merger, they were paired in the AFC Central (later the AFC North). The Steelers won the first meeting 21-10 in November 1970 at their old Three Rivers Stadium.

The Bengals won the home rematch 34-7 on their way to the AFC Central title, but the Steelers dominated the decade as a whole, winning four Super Bowls in six years. Led by their ‘Steel Curtain’, they held Cincy to 17 points or fewer in 10 games, including a 7-3 win in 1976 – the lowest score to date. A rare treat for Cincinnati during this lean spell was a 34-10 home win in 1979, when the 0-6 Bengals forced nine turnovers.

The 1980s

That win hinted at a change in fortunes and the Bengals did indeed gain the upper hand in the Eighties. In 1980, they finally triumphed in Pittsburgh (as well as at home), denying the Steelers a playoff place for the first time since 1971. Cincy also did the double in 1981, sealed the division and reached their first Super Bowl (less said about that the better…).

#2: All Wyche on the night
In November 1988, Boomer Esiason threw three TDs and James Brooks rushed for three more as the Bengals thrashed the Steelers 42-7, the largest win for either team. Head Coach Sam Wyche led Cincinnati all the way to a second Super Bowl (again, let’s skirt round that).

Credit: Getty Images

The 1990s

Having won six straight, the Bengals’ 21-20 advantage after the 1990 season was the only time we’ve ever led the series but ‘normal’ service soon resumed. The ensuing eight-game streak for Pittsburgh from 1991 to 1994 included a 21-9 victory in which first-round pick David Klingler got sacked a team-record 10 times in his first NFL start.

Then in 1995, trailing 31-13 in the third, the Steelers scored 36 unanswered points to win 49-31. They powered on to Super Bowl XXX, where Neil O’Donnell threw three interceptions in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The QB didn’t help his cause when he joined Cincinnati in 1998, overseeing two wins against his former team in a 3-13 season.

#3: Steelers fooled with fake spike
In the first of those victories in 1998, the Bengals were 20-18 down with the clock ticking down. On a 4th-and-long, O’Donnell found WR Carl Pickens with a 50-yard ‘Hail Mary’, before two runs took the Bengals within field goal range. Everyone expected O’Donnell to stop the clock but he faked a spike and found Pickens again for a game-winning TD.

The 2000s

With both teams in new stadia, the Steelers continued to dominate as regular playoff contenders and two-time Super Bowl winners. The teams also recruited new quarterbacks, with Cincinnati drafting Carson Palmer first overall in 2003 and the Steelers selecting Ben Roethlisberger a year later. ‘Big Ben’ now has a 24-7 record against the Bengals, with a 16-10 win in 2015 the last time Cincy tasted victory.

#4: ‘Housh’ shines in stellar season
In 2005, one of the Bengals’ best seasons, we notched a 38-31 victory on our way to the AFC North title. After the game, wideout TJ Houshmandzadeh notoriously used a ‘Terrible Towel’ (which has its own Wiki page) to clean off his cleats, offending Pittsburgh players and fans alike.

#5: Carson crocked
The Bengals were undone a few weeks later in the AFC Wild Card game, their first playoff appearance for 14 years. The game, on 8 January 2006, became infamous for a low hit by former Bengal Kimo von Oelhoffen on Carson Palmer, tearing his knee ligaments as he released the ball. Chris Henry also sustained a knee injury making the 66-yard completion. Cincinnati still built a 17-7 lead under Jon Kitna but they couldn’t maintain the momentum. The Steelers went on to win 31-17 and eventually triumphed at Super Bowl XL, while the Bengals began a tailspin that eventually led to Palmer’s departure.

Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

#6: Unhappy New Year
The only thing stopping Cincinnati making the playoffs in the 2006 season was the small matter of a New Year’s Eve game with the already-out-of-contention Steelers. Tied 17-17 and with 1:33 remaining in OT, the scene was set for Big Ben to throw a 67-yard TD pass, leaving Cincy’s post-season dreams in tatters.

#7: The tackle that changed the rules
In October 2008, an otherwise forgettable 38-10 defeat saw Hines Ward commit a ‘crackback’ block on Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers, breaking his jaw and ending his career. Although legal at the time, such blocks against defenceless players are now outlawed.

The 2010s

By 2011, the Bengals had drafted new quarterback Andy Dalton, but the Steelers still ruled the roost. Pittsburgh currently lead the decade 17-3 and the rivalry has only intensified in recent years, as illustrated by a 30-20 loss in 2013. During the game, Terence Garvin clattered Bengals punter Kevin Huber, breaking his jaw and cracking neck vertebrae. Once again, a rule change ensued, preventing blockers from hitting kickers not directly involved in the play.

#8: Bitter tweet
A 16-10 win for the Bengals in November 2015 was soured by Cincy linebacker Vontaze Burfict tackling Le’Veon Bell as he ran out of bounds, putting the star RB out for the season with a knee injury. Some felt that Burfict celebrated the injury he’d inflicted, prompting one player to tweet a perceived death threat afterwards.

#9: Bengals self-destruct in Wild Card chaos
In their second postseason clash – the 2015 AFC Wild Card game – the Steelers were 15-0 up after three quarters when Ben Roethlisberger was carted off the field with a shoulder injury. Standing in for Andy Dalton, back-up AJ McCarron led a 16-point reply. An interception with under two minutes left meant they just had to run down the clock. But in the very next play, Jeremy Hill fumbled, the Steelers recovered the ball and Roethlisberger returned to lead their final drive. Burfict (him again) was flagged for a headshot to Antonio Brown and cornerback Adam Jones had an altercation with Steelers coach Joey Porter. Penalties for both incidents moved the chains enough for Chris Boswell to kick the game-winning FG with 14 seconds left. For many Bengals fans, this still rivals the Carson Palmer injury as an all-time low.

#10: Cincy pay the penalty again
In another ill-tempered grudge match in 2017, the Bengals led 17-0 but still managed to lose 23–20, thanks to another last-gasp Boswell kick. Ryan Shazier, Joe Mixon and Vontaze Burfict all suffered serious injuries and JuJu Smith-Schuster was suspended for his hit on Burfict. Between them, the teams incurred seven penalties for unnecessary roughness, unsportsmanlike conduct, roughing the passer and taunting.

Credit: Getty Images

And so to Sunday…

As we speak, the Bengals stand on the cusp of their worst start in franchise history but injuries and roster moves are clearly having an effect. Already without AJ Green, John Ross and Jonah Williams, we have benched Dalton for rookie Ryan Finley, released linebacker Preston Brown, sent Dre Kirkpatrick to IR and lost wideout Auden Tate to concussion. It does look like left tackle Cordy Glenn may make his first start of the season though.

The Steelers have won the past nine meetings, including a prime-time 27-3 humbling earlier this season, but they are also below par. Mason Rudolph is deputising at quarterback to limited effect and last Thursday’s eventful defeat to the Browns claimed several players, including wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee/concussion) and running back James Conner (shoulder). All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey also earned a three-game ban (since amended to two) for his role in the fracas. Anyone spot a theme here?

So will the 101st meeting be a classic? I’m not expecting much offense-wise, with both back-up QBs struggling and key weapons missing on both sides. But let’s just hope it’s a clean, well-contested game for a change. And who knows, it could yet earn a place in the annals of history if Cincy can somehow overcome the odds, muster that elusive win and avoid their first-ever 0-11 start…

Prediction: Steelers 17, Bengals 9

Featured Picture – Credit: Cara Owsley

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