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Steelers vs. Bengals: Setting the stage, and picking the winner of this AFC North matchup

The Bengals, winless against the Steelers since 2013, are in a prime position to vanquish their demons.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend, the Steelers travel to Cincinnati, where they will wage battle against the vile Bengals, their definitional rival by dint of their concurrent existence in the AFC North—which—don’t laugh—might be the best division in the NFL; it is the only division, in fact, in which each participant boasts a .500 or better record. The Steelers have not lost in Cincinnati since 2013, and they haven’t lost to the Bengals at all since 2015, a head-to-head winning streak that currently stands at seven games. Imagine if your favorite team dropped seven games in a row to its most hated rival. Imagine if the Steelers did this. Vast hordes of rightfully apoplectic fans would swarm Heinz Field, pitchforks and Terrible Towels in hand, demanding the organization be scrubbed clean of those responsible for enabling the team to reach such a startling nadir.

But not the Bengals. I suppose, if you were particularly inclined to be overly benevolent, one could argue that the Bengals are, I don’t know, an exemplary model of organizational consistency, or something. More pragmatically, though, they are the same county fair you’ve been patronizing since you were a kid. Football czar Mike Brown, who isn’t so much frugal as he is dirt cheap, has done nothing to sully the core pieces of this enterprise. Stooge Marvin Lewis, who is unfailingly the Jeopardy! answer to “The one NFL coach you’d never want to see patrolling your team’s sideline,” has coached the team since 2003, which is insane given his horrifying record of stunning ineptitude in the postseason. This would be one thing if, in 2007, Lewis signed a 15-year contract extension that contained an ironclad no-buyout provision, but Lewis has signed myriad short-term contract extensions, the most recent of which came on the heels of back-to-back nine-loss seasons. If there’s a Mike Brown pee-tape floating around, Lewis has it, and he’s made copies.

The personnel is more or less the same it’s been since, like, 2007, too. Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard, Dre Kirkpatrick, Vincent Rey, Carlos Dunlap, and Geno Atkins were all part of the same 1996 draft class, and Vontaze Burfict, the league’s foremost hitman, has been lowerin’ helmets and twistin’ ankles since before Ben Roethlisberger was born. Now, none of this is to say that this is a subpar core of star players; quite the contrary, in fact—this is a group that, from 2011 though 2015, willed the Bengals to five consecutive postseason berths, four double-digit win seasons, and two AFC North titles. Dalton, Green, et al.—and, to be fair, Lewis—dragged the Bengals kicking and screaming into the realm of respectability, a domain they had not visited since...Boomer Esiason was the quarterback? I honestly don’t even know. This is a commendable feat, truly. But the Bengals should’ve viewed their 6-9-1 season in 2016 as a warning sign of their impending finality, and their 7-9 record the season thereafter should’ve confirmed it. Dalton, toiling behind a paper-thin offensive line, looked irreversibly broken, Cincinnati’s young, promising skill players suddenly didn’t look so promising, and the defense fell apart. No one would’ve blamed Brown for blowing the whole operation sky-high and starting anew.

This brings us to 2018, where the Bengals are featuring many of the same players they featured in 2015, a season in which they won 12 games before losing spectacularly and hilariously to the Steelers in the AFC Playoffs. It’s a strategy that’s bore fruit. Cincinnati is 4-1 and very legitimately looks like one of the teams to beat in the AFC. Dalton is playing at an MVP caliber, and Green is on pace to catch approximately a zillion touchdowns. Tight end Tyler Eifert may have vaporized his patella tendon whilst painting with watercolors, but former Pitt standout Tyler Boyd, who looked like a lost cause after a bleh sophomore campaign, is making the third-year leap, having already established himself as an effective and reliable secondary receiver. Second-year receiver John Ross, ostensibly a game-breaker, is Dri Archer with more fanfare, but he’s still theoretically a dangerous vertical threat who could potentially open space for other pass-catchers, I guess? I probably shouldn’t throw too much shade at John Ross; a man who boasts 4.2 speed facing off against a porous secondary that’s allowed what feels like a hundred big plays this year is a matchup that favors the former. Indeed, the Bengals are certainly not bereft of offensive firepower, and they’ll have perhaps their most versatile weapon available for this weekend’s proceedings. Despite missing two games after undergoing a minor knee procedure, Joe Mixon touched the football 25 times in a 27-17 win over the Dolphins last week, accruing nearly 120 all-purpose yards and scoring a touchdown. He’ll be featured heavily against the Steelers (Mixon has at least 22 touches in each of his three starts this season)

Prediction: Bengals 31, Steelers 21

That the Bengals have lost seven games in a row to the Steelers is bad enough, but that three of those losses (the 2015 Wild Card game and late-season games in 2016 and 2017) resulted from impossible collapses at home is the kind of thing that can shatter the disposition of even the most optimistic supporter. As a Steelers fan, I can relate to this.

The Steelers are, in many ways, a primary rival of the New England Patriots even though the Steelers have not beat the Patriots since 2011 and even though they have never defeated Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium or in the playoffs. In the six games that have occurred since that 2011 victory, my state of mind pre-game has become increasingly fatalistic, going from from “We can beat these guys!” in 2013 to “Well, the law of averages says we’ll win one of these eventually, right?” in 2016 to “Okay, so we can probably just chalk this one up as a loss” after reviewing the 2018 schedule back in the spring. The resulting disappointment stings a little less if you expect it, you know?

I think this is maybe what it feels like currently to be a Bengals fan. The Bengals are very obviously an excellent football team (just as the Steelers were in the run-ups to their matchups with New England), but, for whatever reason, they’ve been utterly incapable of vanquishing the despicable Pittsburgh Steelers, even though they’ve routinely outplayed the Steelers for significant portions of numerous games. This is probably a dumb take, but it still feels too early to determine what the 2018 versions of the Steelers and Bengals currently are, let alone what they might be. There’s still plenty of time for things to fall in accordance with projections—namely, the Steelers could still transform into an unbeatable Super Bowl contender, just like the Bengals could regress and finish, like, 8-8—but it’s possible, too, that these Cincinnati Bengals are just as talented as the 2015 division winners.

Either way, it isn’t a stretch to say that, right now, the Bengals are a better football team than the Steelers, ghosts of misfortunes past be damned. I think they’ll end up resetting the ticker on Pittsburgh’s win streak.