Sunday’s win in Pittsburgh wasn’t pretty, and it may not have been the resounding blowout win we may have desired, but it was nonetheless a huge victory and a seminal event in franchise history.
Back on October 21st, Bengaldom was in open revolt. After a fairly impressive 3-1 start, the Bengals had dropped two games in a row to vastly inferior opponents. They lost an infinitely winnable game at home to the disheveled Dolphins, then traveled to Cleveland and allowed the Browns to put up an embarrassing 34 points. Most fans expected them to win at least one of those games, if not both.
It was getting ugly. But it would get worse.
The only immediate remedy was to get back in the “w” column, and the Steelers, also reeling from a rough start, came to town to play the Bengals in front of a sold out crowd at PBS for NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Losing those other games was bad, but beating the Steelers would make it all right again.
As the Bengals walked off the PBS turf hanging their heads after a 24-17 loss, the season seemed all but lost. Heading into the bye week at 3-4, the playoffs suddenly seemed a ridiculous impossibility. It looked like another lost year. Angry fans demanded Marvin Lewis to be fired, the Mike Brown haters returned in full force with the tired old criticisms, and some already began turning their attention to the draft.
Looking back, I think what hurt the most was the way in which they lost. Pittsburgh waltzed into Cincinnati, spotted the Bengals a 14-3 lead, and simply waited for the Bengals to implode, which they inevitably did. The offense was completely inept and the defense allowed someone named Jonathan Dwyer to gain 122 yards and close out the game with a first down running the ball to kill the clock.
That was truly ugly.
But we all know what happened next. The Bengals came off the bye losing to Denver in a close one, then ripped off four straight wins to get right back into the thick of the hunt.
Even before the Bengals played Dallas and Philadelphia, talking heads and experts from ESPN, NFL Network, CBS and others were already pointing to the December 23rd Steeler rematch as a high noon showdown for the playoffs. They were right about that.
And they virtually all saw the Steelers taking it.
Who could blame them? After all, we’re the Bengals–the perpetual also-rams of the NFL. They are the Steelers–their mythical might and history of success were undeniable. Besides, it was an overly-documented fact that Andy Dalton and A.J. Green were 0-3 against them.
Besides the so-called experts, it was clear that Steelers fans thought they had the playoffs in the bag. Their boys in black and yellow would easily dispatch they upstart Bengals, then whip the hapless Browns. Reading their commentary on the Internet, they even maintained designs on the division, even though it was a mathematical impossibility. Their spoiled rants showed that they had no grasp on reality, and no matter their record, they wouldn’t stoop to consider the thought that the Bengals could beat them. Despite losing 4 of their last five, no one feared the Bengals, winners of 4 of 5. In short, their arrogance was disgusting.
Sunday was an opportunity to exorcise demons, stake a claim to the playoffs, earn some respect, and punch a bully in the nose.
It wasn’t easy, and make no mistake: Pittsburgh gave it their very best effort. But this time, their best simply wasn’t good enough.
Their defense gave Dalton and Green fits, but when the Bengals needed a big play, they came through. That 21-yard pass from Dalton to Green with 8 seconds left was the kind of play champions make. The kind of play Pittsburgh couldn’t make.
And as great as their defense played, Cincinnati’s was better. Sure they held the Bengals to just 14 rushing yards, but Pittsburgh got zero points on 3 Bengal turnovers—including 2 in the critical fourth quarter. The orange and black defense stoned Big Ben all afternoon. The Bengals too got 3 turnovers-but each one was huge in the outcome and the Bengals capitalized on each. The first was a defensive score, with Leon Hall taking the Roethlisberger pass 17 yards to the house. His second pick with 14 seconds left set-up the aforementioned Dalton-Green heroics and Josh Brown’s game winning kick. The last, a fumble on the last play of the game, sealed the win for Cincy.
Leaving the field after this Steelers contest, an elated group of young stars savored a hard-fought and well-earned victory. And perhaps they earned some overdue respect too.
So far, those same clueless and spoiled Steeler fans are licking their wounds, and insisting that it’s not that the Bengals were that good, but that the Steelers are that bad. Despite their confidence last week, they now attempt to insist that they’ve known of their team’s weakness all along, and that this result was a fait accompli.
But that’s a bunch of whining by some sore losers.
The truth is that on a day that Steeler Nation celebrated the 40th anniversary of the seminal moment in their history, with the upper hand in a race to the playoffs against a team they typically beat, they were defeated. Plain and simple. Cincinnati proved, in the most hostile environment possible, that they were the better team, and redeemed themselves for that Sunday Night loss. It was a day that an upstart Bengal team overcame the resident bully, 60,000 towel-waving lunatics and a green room full of hall of famers to win. Cincinnati’s heroes looked into the jaws of steel town and came through with sweet redemption on a cold Pittsburgh afternoon.
Perhaps Sunday’s win for the Bengals, perpetuated just a few yards and 40 years away from Franco Harris’s famous catch, will have a similar effect in long term path for the Bengals.
Time will tell.