The Cincinnati Bengals had everything to play for.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had them right where they wanted them.
With the AFC North title within their reach, the Bengals hosted the Steelers in what was supposed to be a no-holds-barred grudge match yet would play out like so many games between these two teams when the stakes have been raised. While the Bengals did their talking during a pregame scuffle at midfield orchestrated by Vontaze Burfict, the Steelers used an efficient day by Ben Roethlisberger and three key interceptions to earn a convincing 33-20 victory.
Should it really come as a surprise?
Sure, some will make the excuse that Andy Dalton’s first quarter thumb injury was the difference in the game, but that holds up about as well as Burfict’s trash talk did.
The Steelers are the better team – something they proved unequivocally in front of a sell out crowd at Paul Brown Stadium who came to see their team win the division. Yet now, it’s possible with Dalton out and the Steelers finding momentum, that there will very little to celebrate in Cincinnati.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
While Burfict and Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick spent the week talking about what they were going to do, the Steelers let their play do the talking.
It started from the opening possessions of the game, where Roethlisberger deftly marched the Steelers 80 yards for an early touchdown while the Bengals turned the ball over courtesy of a mix of poor decision making by Dalton and a truly magnificent read by Stephon Tuitt.
Two drives, two distinctly different outcomes that proved why the Steelers are once again a team nobody wants to face in the playoffs, and the Bengals are exactly the opposite.
No brainer of the century, right? With Dalton potentially done for the season, does anyone think the Bengals are a contender with A.J. McCarren leading the way?
Not even the most hardcore Bengals fan could possibly feel great at this point. Dominated physically in a game where they were supposed to prove they were the big boy on the block, the Bengals once again found out that the Steelers were not going to be bullied and proved it by playing an absolutely punishing brand of football.
It’s just another chapter in a book with the same ending every time: The Bengals are finally ready to take the next step and overtake the consummate NFL franchise in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Slow your roll there, fellas.
Despite of plenty of critics, Mike Tomlin once again has this team playing hard and hitting their stride late in the season.
That’s without Le’Veon Bell. Without Maurkice Pouncey. Without Kelvin Beachum. It’s also without having Roethlisberger healthy enough to start five different games this season, including galling losses to Baltimore and the Chiefs that might keep Tomlin from leading the franchise to their second consecutive AFC North crown.
Something tells me Tomlin would trade that for an AFC playoff berth for potentially another visit to the Queen City to begin what might be a reasonable path towards his third Super Bowl appearance in nine seasons.
Considering the myriad of injuries and challenges this season, that could make for quite a story.
If they are able to put together a run that could ultimately put them in position to win their seventh Super Bowl title in the 50th rendition of the contest, it might be a win in Cincinnati where the Steelers proved they are still the big boy on the block that people will remember.