There’s hatred in the rivalry between the Steelers and Bengals — a legitimate anger.
It takes two good teams to make a viable rivalry, and both teams are certainly that, but the big-brother, little-brother dynamic in this matchup remains as strong as ever, despite the Bengals making the playoffs every season since 2011.
That’s because the Bengals haven’t won a playoff game in 25 years.
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They obviously won’t get a chance to break that streak Sunday in Pittsburgh, but they might find a bit of catharsis in a regular-season win over the Steelers.
They need it considering what went down the last time these two teams played.
Cincinnati was on its way to winning its first playoff game since 1990 last year in the AFC Wild Card game, holding the ball and a 16-15 lead with less than two minutes to play.
It took a self-destruction of fabular proportions to lose that contest: It started with Jeremy Hill’s fumble, which led to Ben Roethlisberger’s return from a shoulder injury, and then, most famously, Vontaze Burfict’s egregious head-hunting hit on Antonio Brown, followed by Pacman Jones’ unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, which gave the Steelers 30 free yards and immediately set up the subsequent game-winning, 35-yard field goal with 18 seconds remaining.
The Bengals are one of the best teams in the NFL again this season, but no one knows if they squandered their last best chance to break that playoff losing streak.
The consensus around the NFL is that the Steelers will return to the playoffs again this year — they are one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl this season — and their Week 1 domination over the Redskins affirmed many of those suspicions.
The Steelers won with the deep pass in Week 1 — Roethlisberger was 4-for-4 on throws over 20 yards against Washington, and found Antonio Brown eight times for 126 yards and two touchdowns — and that poses problems for the Bengals.
Cincinnati did an admirable job of bottling up Brown last year in the regular season, holding him to 134 yards and 13 catches in two games, but after a shaky opening game against the Jets, there’s no guarantee that Cincinnati will be able to repeat that kind of performance in 2016.
The Steelers share a similar concern with the Bengals’ A.J. Green, who had an exceptional Week 1 performance. With some question marks in the secondary — rookie cornerback Sean Davis allowed catches on 83.3 percent of targets against Washington — Pittsburgh will have a difficult time controlling the Cincinnati passing game, which looked recharged in the team’s win over the Jets last week.
This regular-season contest could perhaps be decided by events in that playoff game early this year — the Bengals will be without linebacker Vontaze Burfict until the end of the month, as he was suspended three games for that vicious helmet-to-helmet hit. We know the Steelers will be able to move the ball through the air — they’re one of the NFL’s best at that — but if they can pair that attack with a solid running game that attacks a linebacker core that is clearly missing its best player, it could well tilt the contest in Pittsburgh’s favor.