PITTSBURGH — Much has been made of the rivalry between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals in recent years and how heated it has become.
The games between the teams have become downright violent, particularly the meetings last December and January at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. Both nearly turned into melees, as the Steelers downed the Bengals on the regular-season meeting in Week 15 then rallied to win an AFC wild card playoff game.
The teams meet Sunday at Heinz Field and while the Steelers do not shy away from the fact that there seems to be genuine hatred between the two teams, they stop short of saying the Bengals are their biggest rivals.
“It’s AFC North football,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “All of them are competitive. Whether it’s the Browns, Bengals or Ravens, to us, they’re all big division rivals.”
The intensity of the Steelers-Bengals’ rivalry has just picked in recent years as Cincinnati has made five consecutive playoff appearances and won the AFC North two of the previous three years.
“It’s a very big rivalry. I would say it’s the second-biggest rivalry in the AFC North,” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said. “The Ravens are first but it’s a hard-hitting, physical rivalry, one that you have to respect and one that you have to bring your hard hat.”
The Steelers’ rivalry with the Baltimore Ravens is longstanding, dating back to days when that franchise was the original Cleveland Browns before moving in 1996.
Geography fueled that rivalry when the Browns were a two-hour turnpike drive away. The Ravens’ success since 2000, making 10 playoff appearances and winning two Super Bowl titles in the last 16 seasons, has made things more intense with a franchise has six Lombardi Trophies.
“There’s a history there,” Heyward said. “It’s not a slight at the Bengals but the Ravens have won Super Bowls, we’ve won Super Bowls and those games have come down to the playoffs where the winner goes to the Super Bowl. It’s not a slight at them but we’re still developing a rivalry (with the Bengals).”
Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell suffered season-ending injuries in games against the Bengals the last two seasons, in Week 16 in 2015 and Week 8 in 2016. The Week 15 rematch last season was exceptionally physical as the Steelers were still smarting over the loss of Bell two months earlier, and how Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict stood over him and cheered while he was on the ground injured.
Then during the final minute of the playoff game, Steelers All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown suffered a concussion when he took a hit to the head from Burfict. That helped set up Chris Boswell’s 35-yard field goal with 14 seconds left that gave the Steelers an 18-16 victory but proved costly to their hopes of winning the Super Bowl.
Without Brown, the Steelers lost 23-16 to the Broncos the following week in a divisional playoff game at Denver. The Broncos went on to win the Super Bowl and the Steelers were left to wonder what might have been if they would have had the services of their top offensive weapon.
Burfict will miss Sunday’s game as he is a serving a three-game suspension imposed by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for the hit on Brown. Bell will also sit out the second game of a three-game suspension for his violation of the NFL’s drug policy.
The Steelers insist they will not be looking to avenge the hit on Brown.
“That would insinuate retaliation and that’s not who we are,” Roethlisberger said. “I think it’s a physical football game, a physical division, and that’s what we expect, a physical football game. Clean.”
Steelers guard Ramon Foster says the most important aspect of Sunday’s game is that his team and Bengals are in early three-way tie with the Ravens atop of the AFC North following opening-week road victories.
The Steelers beat the Washington Redskins 38-16 and Bengals slipped past the New York Jets 23-22 on Mike Nugent’s 47-yard field goal with 54 seconds remaining.
“Things have escalated a bit with us over the years but when all the talking is done, we just have to play football and that’s how we’re treating it,” Foster said. “If they want to jaw-jack, that’s fine. We’re simply trying to get to 2-0.”
“We’re focused on getting this first AFC North win. If they want to carry stuff over, so be it. Our goal is just to become 2-0.”