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Crunching the Numbers: AFC North dominance by the Bengals?

The numbers are surprising when it comes to divisional records during Steelers-Bengals matchups.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

On Top of the Division

On Sunday, the Steelers head into Paul Brown Stadium to face off against the Bengals in an AFC North divisional matchup. Surprising to many, Cincinnati is in first place in the division at this point of the season. Although the Bengals are exceeding expectations so far in 2018, this is not an unfamiliar place when facing the Steelers. In fact, Cincinnati has been the division leader during their matchups with Pittsburgh fairly often over the past several seasons.

This Sunday will be the 11th straight time either the Steelers or the Bengals are in first place in the AFC North at the time the two teams face off. One would have to go all the way back to Week 16 of the 2012 season for there not to be a division leader involved in a Steelers-Bengals game (the Ravens were sitting atop the North at 9–5). Of those 11 matchups, it was the Bengals in first place eight different times when they met the Steelers.

Before going on, there is something which needs clarification: there are two instances which may be misleading when it comes to divisional lead during Steelers-Bengals games. The first instance was when the Steelers were matched up against Cincinnati in Week 2 of 2016. The Steelers, Bengals, and Ravens all entered the second week with a record of 1–0. Technically, the Bengals and Ravens were tied for the lead in the division because they had a better conference record. Cincinnati and Baltimore both defeated AFC opponents the previous week while the Steelers beat Washington on Monday night football to start the season.

The other instance of leading the division being in question was when the Steelers and Bengals once again met in Week 2, but of the 2013 season. To start the season, all four members of the AFC North were 0-1 after Week 1. The Bengals were technically in first place of the division because they had lost to an NFC opponent, therefore having a better conference record of 0-0 then the other three teams.

Even removing those two scenarios where teams were tied in record after only a single game, the Bengals have been leading the division six times when they faced the Steelers in the last five seasons. One of those times will be this coming Sunday. Of the other five, it’s the Steelers who hold the advantage with a record of 4-1.

A First for Everything

Although it is not uncommon for Cincinnati to be leading the AFC North heading into a game against the Steelers, it will be the first time which they do so with the Steelers sitting in last place in the division. Since the AFC North was established in 2002 when the conference was divided into four divisions instead of three, the Steelers have never been in last place entering a Bengals game.

The closest that the Steelers have ever been to the bottom of the North during the matchup was in 2003 in Week 13. Both the Steelers and the Browns were 4–7 at that point in the season, but the Steelers held a 3–1 record in the division while the Browns’ record was 1-3 against the North. Even at 4-7, The Steelers were only two games out of the division lead because Cincinnati and Baltimore were both 6-5. The Bengals held the top spot with a 2–1 divisional record while the Ravens were 1-2. The Steelers fell to the Bengals 24–20 at Heinz Field and ultimately finished the season 6-10.

Hitting the “Esca-loser”

For those Steeler fans not familiar with the term, the “Esca-loser” is a large escalator in the southeast corner of Paul Brown Stadium. It services the upper deck by traveling up during the first half and switching to down for the second half. It has become notorious for funneling Bengals fans out of the stadium in the fourth quarter when suffering a loss.

Since 2010, no team has kicked the Esca-loser into gear more than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Not only are the Steelers 14–3 against Cincinnati including the playoffs, they are 8–1 in the Paul Brown Stadium. The only loss in that time came in Week 2 of 2013 when the Steelers begin the season 0-4.

In the last nine match-ups at Paul Brown Stadium, the Steelers have outscored the Bengals 225–172 which averages to an advantage of almost 6 points per game. With continued success in Cincinnati, the Steelers have managed to sweep the Bengals during the regular season five of the last eight seasons and currently have a six-game winning streak.

Keep an eye on the Esca-loser Sunday. Hopefully by 4 PM, it turns into the Steelers’ “Stairway to Seven” in a row.