The hunter has now become the hunted.
Or is the proper phrase: The hunted has now become the hunter?
I don’t know if the Steelers are the hunter or the hunted, but they are a 6.5-point road dog to a team that came within a drive of winning the Super Bowl a season ago.
That’s right, these aren’t your slightly-older brother’s Bungals any longer; the Bengals, who used to be AFC North rivals to Pittsburgh in theory only, are now the kings of the jungle.
The Bengals enter the 2022 regular season as the defending AFC North and conference champions; they are a franchise whose 2021 success had to seem like a pipe dream as recently as 2020 when being a league doormat was still accepted as the norm by many inside and outside the organization.
But something happened near the end of the 2020 campaign: The lowly Bengals put a temporary halt to the Steelers' drive toward an AFC North championship thanks to a 27-17 victory at old Paul Brown Stadium.
Not much was expected from Cincinnati at the start of the 2021 season, but the Bengals put folks on notice—at least the folks in Pittsburgh—when they came into old Heinz Field in Week 3 and thoroughly dominated their long-time tormentors in a 24-10 win that wasn’t even that close.
If you thought those recent victories by “little brother” were flukes, the Bengals put that sentiment to rest late last year with a 41-10 home win over Pittsburgh that, believe it or not, seemed more thorough than the score indicated.
To repeat: The Bengals, a team that used to call old Riverfront Stadium “The Jungle,” are now the reigning kings of many things, including the Steelers.
If you are a Steelers fan—or even a current or former Steelers player—you probably spent many years reasonably and logically marking down two wins when discussing an upcoming regular season schedule and the dates vs. Cincinnati--Pittsburgh had won 11 in a row over the Bengals prior to that aforementioned surprise loss in December of 2020.
Those days are over—at least it would appear.
I realize it’s hard for a lot of people to grasp, but the Bengals are currently in a better place than the Steelers.
Cincinnati has a loaded offense, led by quarterback Joe Burrow, the king lion among the group of quarterbacks in the AFC North.
The Bengals have a lethal arsenal of skill-position players and a revamped offensive line.
The defense doesn’t resemble the ‘76 Steel Curtain, but it’s pretty darn good at every level.
The Bengals are a damn-good football team.
The Steelers enter 2022 as a franchise in transition following quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement in January. Pittsburgh begins its 2022 campaign as a real underdog, a franchise that is expected to finish with a losing record according to the oddsmakers--it would mark the first under head coach Mike Tomlin.
The Steelers may be able to boast a better defense than Cincinnati in 2022, but will that be enough? Will it make up for not having Roethlisberger behind center—even if Mitch Trubisky, the first man tasked with stepping into Big Ben’s enormous shoes, is at his very best all season long?
Can the defense keep the Steelers in games on a consistent enough basis to offset an offense that may be weighed down by the hogs up front?
It would appear that Pittsburgh’s skill-position players can be special if given the chance, but will the offensive line improve just enough to do its part?
These questions will all be answered in due time, but what happens Sunday in Cincinnati? Have the Bengals truly established dominance in this rivalry and shifted the dynamic for the foreseeable future?
The Steelers were able to sneak up on the Bills a season ago when they marched into Buffalo in Week 1 and left with a 23-16 upset win.
However, it may be a bit more difficult for Pittsburgh to do that this Sunday against a Bengals team that figures to be on the lookout for the scary ghosts who used to spook them into submission whenever these two teams got together.
The Steelers are in a weird place as they move on from the Roethlisberger era and have the look of a franchise that may be headed for some truly dreadful days if this transition phase doesn’t go as planned. Speaking of ghosts, it feels like the Steelers are getting ready to visit an early-’80s-themed haunted house on Sunday that may be full of people dressed like Ken Anderson and Cris Collinsworth who are hiding in the dark and just waiting to scare the bejeezus out of them.
Can the Steelers repeat recent history with a Week 1 road win this Sunday in Cincinnati?
Or are they primed to revisit the 1980s when the Bengals almost always had the upper hand in this rivalry?