Not all games are created equal. Not all rivalries are created equal. And not all miserable fan bases are created equal. That’s why this Saturday’s primetime showdown between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild card round of the NFL playoffs is a game for the ages.
The Bengals franchise has a fan base that suffers from a long history of failure. The mention of the San Francisco 49ers can bring tears to certain portions of the crowd. That is a dated reference to many fans, though. Those are what my generation likes to qualify as ‘the glory years.’ Things were good. 12-wins and a pair of Super Bowl runs make the 80’s sound like the time to be alive in Cincinnati. Two years after the last Super Bowl run, 1988, it all coincided with a Cincinnati Reds championship run in 1990.
Sorry, that’s the record stopping on a dime. Ruined for all intents and purposes. Why? Well, let me fill you in on a fun fact that we Cincinnati residents know all too well. We haven’t been to the pinnacle of success since 1990 with the Reds. No ticker tape parades here. Just a long line of playoff futility.
1990 wasn’t only the last time that one of the two professional teams took to the top of their respective sporting world; it was the last time the Bengals won a playoff game. The longest streak of playoff misery in the NFL. Since 1995, those of us that live in the Queen City haven’t even experience a playoff “win” that was the last time the Reds won a playoff series.
It’s rough. It’s tough. But it’s nearing the end of the line.
For as long as I’ve been alive, Cincinnati has been a baseball town, and in many respects, still is. However, with the Reds now on a down swing, it feels like Cincinnati is finally a football city, at least for now.
The two sports that I love so dearly are baseball and football; they’re all we have here in Cincy. Porkopolis is known for several things: chili, pigs, and the first professional baseball team. But this year it added a fourth, a good football team.
It seems like the previous four years have all been in preparation for Saturday’s game. The Bengals haven’t missed the playoffs since the team started the rebuild after the Carson Palmer debacle. It’s been an impressive run. But ask any Steeler fan about Cincinnati and they’ll gladly bring up the 0-4 playoff record that haunts Andy Dalton in his sleep (not really).
See, Dalton hasn’t been well liked in Cincinnati. He’s been the object of failure for most fans. And despite the fact that the four straight losses aren’t solely on him, he bears the brunt of the hate. This year, however, Dalton became loved. If you will, remember the Celebrity All-Star Softball Game that took place at this past year’s All-Star game in Cincinnati. Remember Dalton getting booed when his name was announced? That’s what he’s dealt with every year.
With that in mind, let me speed forward to Dec. 5. The Bengals were playing in Cleveland against the lowly Browns. It would end in a victory. I was lucky enough to be there to watch as Browns fans left the stadium with bags over their heads. But as a few friends and I stood near the Bengals tunnel, we chanted “Who-Dey” with all of our extended friends. The players loved it. Gloves went every which way, and fans fought for some game used memorabilia from them. But after nearly all the players were gone, we still waited. One player was left.
As the Red Rifle left the field, the chant changed, “MVP, MVP, MVP” echoed throughout FirstEnergy Stadium. A road game that fans waited for their now beloved quarterback ended in a sweet way. Dalton made sure to high-five as many hands as possible as his fans serenaded him off the field. It was beautiful. It all seemed right.
Everything was falling into place. That was, of course, until the Pittsburgh Steelers came to town just seven days later.
Dalton broke his thumb in the first quarter, and all hope was lost. The season that felt perfect suddenly took a turn for the worse. Then, Tyler Eifert was announced that he’d miss the remainder of the game with a concussion from a helmet-to-helmet hit courtesy of Steelers DB Mike Mitchell. Everything was falling apart. A chippy game that included insane fines for players from both sides ended with the Steelers on top; playoff hopes alive, and Bengals hopes crushed.
Since then, the Bengals have gone on to finish 12-4 as AFC North Champions. A.J. McCarron came in for Dalton and has performed excellently in relief. His 97.1 QB rating would be good enough for ninth in the NFL if he had the minimum attempts to qualify. However, it’s not what Dalton was doing. He finished the season with a 106.3 QB rating, second best. But that’s okay. McCarron nearly beat the Denver Broncos, had he done that, this week wouldn’t have happened.
Like I said way back at the beginning of this piece, it’s been a long time since Bengals fans could celebrate.
Getting a first round bye would’ve been phenomenal. The last time the Bengals did that, 1988. They went to the Super Bowl. Oh well, it didn’t happen. The Bengals finished with 12 wins, a mark only reached twice in franchise history. They went to the Super Bowl both times. So if your superstitious, there’s your mark.
But you ask how I think this year will bring about celebration and jubilation? The odds are against the Bengals.
They don’t win in primetime. The game is at 8:15 p.m. on Saturday. Primetime.
They don’t beat the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium (or just they don’t beat the Steelers). The Steelers have only lost three games at PBS, going 15-3 since its opening. The Steelers are 24-9 against the Bengals since 2000.
The Bengals don’t win in the playoffs. They haven’t won since 1990. They’re on a four-game losing streak with Dalton and A.J. Green on the team.
The stats, figures, and facts all lean towards Pittsburgh.
But those won’t matter on Sunday.
This is a Bengals team that looks different. They’ve played with an edge this season. Dalton looked like a new guy. When Dalton went down, the team didn’t give up. They’ve rallied. They have a swagger to them. A playoff swagger. The type that makes everyone hate Tom Brady. You know what I’m talking about. Never does losing enter a player’s mind, you can’t even speculate that it does. That’s new. That’s something that hasn’t been with this team since I’ve watched them.
The game on Sunday will be one for the ages. Not because of the score. Not because of the chippiness that we’ll see. Not for any of the off-field reasons. It’s a game for the ages because when the Bengals win, it ends all of the demons that have haunted Cincinnati for the last 20+ years. It squashes all of the sufferings that has been built up on the backs of loyal Cincinnati fans. It will be a truly glorious time to be in the ‘Nati. It will be a day that Bengals fans remember for their entire lives.
Beating the Steelers is how I want it to happen. Beating the Dark Side, it’s something that must happen.
Bengals fans have annoyed me this week. They’ve had their tails tucked between their legs it seems. “We would get the Steelers in primetime.” I’ve read that and heard that too often. They’ve conceded the loss. Why? Well because of the history of course.
But I’m not. This Saturday marks the end of the Steelers dominance (even though that’s false in its own right) and the Bengals claim the top spot in the Midwest.
McCarron or Dalton? Doesn’t matter. This one is going to the Bengals. The Steeler defense relies on the offense to score 30+ a game to win. Not happening this week. The secondary is healthy for the first time in the last few weeks for the Bengals, they have one job, stop Antonio Brown. They’ll do that, at least slowing him down.
The guys rushing Ben Roethlisberger will get there early and often. This is an important game for the defense. They know what’s at stake. Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones have both said the stupid penalties that happened last time won’t happen again. Vontaze Burfict had a weird game last time; he was fined and penalized. But if you watched him last week, you’ll know he’s playing at his highest level since before the knee injury. He played in 90 percent of the snaps last Sunday; that number will continue to rise. The defense will stop the almighty Steeler offense on Saturday.
The Bengals offense hasn’t been as potent with McCarron as it was with Dalton, but it’s remained a tough group to matchup with each week. With Tyler Eifert fully healthy and Jeremy Hill fresh off his best performance in a while, they’re in tip-top shape. Expect something more from Hill this week. Expect more from everyone. Green has always played well against the Steelers. This week, with it all on the line, expect big things from him. He’s been critical of his playoff performances in recent years. This week he proves himself.
So at midnight, after the game, we will be rid of the playoff misery that has stricken the greater Cincinnati area for years. It’s over. Got it? I’m calling my shot now, 28-10 Bengals win.