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The Best Rivalry in the NFL?

I wanted to comment briefly about Sports Illustrated's most recent cover story: the rivalry between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals, which in their mind, is the nastiest in the NFL.

Quick disclaimer, I haven't read the article, so I don't know how or if they are defining the word 'rivalry'. I would presume that the author is not claiming that this is the best historic rivalry, but rather, that it is the most heated one in the NFL today.

Even so, I still disagree. We all know the Bengals were the laughing stock of the NFL for the better part of the 1990s, and their ineptitude carried over to the new millenium seamlessly. In 2000 they were 4-12, in 2001 they were 2-14. It was not until 2003 that the Bengals even leveled their record at .500. In fact, they went 8-8 in both 2003 and 2004. It wasn't until last year that they made the playoffs and finished the season with a winning record.

The Steelers on the other hand, have been consistently good for quite some time now. Under Coach Cowher, the Steelers have had the best winning percentage in the NFL since 1992. Of course there were a few bad years sprinkled in this past decade and a half, but for the most part, the Steelers have been consistently good for quite some time. One thing the team's done to maintain that high level of winning excellece is to beat the teams you're supposed to beat. And for many years, that meant the Cincinnati Bengals.

Since Carson Palmer was given the keys to the offense, and Marvin Lewis has infused his confident attitude on the team, the Bengals have once again rejoined the ranks of the NFL's elite. Last year they edged out Pittsburgh on a tiebreaker to capture the divisional title. They finished the season with 11 wins, and thought they had a legitimate shot to make it at least to the Conference Championship game. Who knows what would have happened if Palmer had not been hurt? Bengals fans would argue that they would have won easily that day. I'm not so sure, but I do think that playoff game was the start of this 'rivalry'.

Where else could it have come from? Before last Sunday's game, the Steelers had won 7 of the last 9 against the Steelers. That's not much of a rivalry. That's a one-sided ass beating by better coached, and better equipped teams personnel wise. In fact, last Sunday was much of the same. We talked about how the Steelers dominated most facets of the game this past Sunday, but I failed to mention that we also won the hitting war that day. We absolutely crunched Carson Palmer and Rudi Johnson all day long. We still looked like the big, bad brother on the block.

The beauty of the NFL (or tragedy depending on who you ask) is that there is so much turnover from year to year. Prior to the dawn of free agency in Major League Baseball, players were basically held captive by their teams for entire careers. This not only kept ball players from seeking out their maximum value on an open market, it also made the league very stagnant. Teams had the same rosters for years and years. The bad teams were bad, and the good teams were good.

Through free agency, good coaching, and some wise drafting (see Carson Palmer), the Bengals have reversed their fortunes. This is a recent development though, one that really blossomed last year. Let's see if Carson Palmer and Big Ben remain in Bengal and Steeler uniforms for years to come; let's wait and listen to Joey Porter and Chad Johnson bark at each other a few more times; let's wait for the Bengals to challenge us consistently for several years before we proclaim this the best rivalry in the NFL.