This week was supposed to be when the old gave way to the new. The NFL knew what it was doing by sending the Steelers to Cincinnati for Monday Night Football late in the season, presenting a young team with a highly touted rookie quarterback a chance to find itself before coming on in the back half of the season. This game was meant to be a torch-passing from the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger to the new sheriff, Joe Burrow. And that would have been so damn sweet.
Instead, what we got was almost sweeter. Ryan Finley’s wide smile as he scored the put-away touchdown spoke for all Bengals fans on Monday night.
Sure, in the big picture, Cincinnati’s 27-17 victory doesn’t really mean that much. But given it was so unexpected, with third-string quarterback Finley and a tough defense leading the way, and given that approximately zero people outside the Bengals’ lockerroom gave them a chance at the upset, and given perhaps it did indeed mark a turning point that will carry over to next season, and given that it let us all bask in a cascade of What’s wrong with Pittsburgh? schadenfreude—well, it was certainly a high point of this otherwise lost season.
Needless to say, given my vengeful, petty nature, the evening’s highlight was Vonn Bell’s planting of the loathsome JuJu Smith-Schuster, he of the TikToking on the Bengals logo and other felonies over the past few years. Determined to channel all of Antonio Brown’s character issues without anything like his on-field production, JJSS is an easy villain. And football is as popular as it is thanks to the legal violence innate to the sport, so the transitive bloodlust was exercised quite nicely when Bell cleaned Smith-Schuster’s clock on a short curl route, resulting in a turnover and an early sign this game was going to be different.
You know the Bengals’ numbers against Pittsburgh: 11 straight losses, no home wins since 2013, 14.5-point underdogs at home, etc., etc. As one Steeler put it the other day, it really hasn’t been a rivalry lately. Long gone are the days of “The Nastiest Rivalry in the NFL—The Bengals Crunch The Steelers” appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. (Shout out to Caleb Miller; remember him?) It’s been the proverbial hammer vs. nail ever since the moment Andy Dalton broke his thumb against Pittsburgh back in 2015.
Monday sure appeared to be a signal that something was changing—though, more than likely, the change was in Pittsburgh instead of Cincinnati. There has been a sense of “Super Bowl or Bust” in the Steel City all season, with the aging and infirm Roethlisberger nearing the end and a salary cap cement wall approaching in the offseason. He remains exceptionally dangerous, especially when he lines up at Paul Brown Stadium, but he wore the late-model Brett Favre “I wanna go home” face even in warmups before Monday’s game. His arm strength looks gone for good. I loved those last couple of plays, when he waved his receivers to “Go deep, go deep!” and then underthrew them by five yards.
With their perennially sturdy O-line at last getting old as well, the Steelers’ offense is in the toilet. They can’t run it and can’t throw it medium or deep. Cincinnati’s defense has certainly played better in the last six weeks, but this was more about a schematic mismatch they seldom get to enjoy. The Bengals stayed deep and rallied up to stop the short passing game while still easily stopping the run.
On the other side of the ball, the chess match saw a reversal from the team’s first encounter, with Taylor getting the best of Mike Tomlin through a run-heavy game plan, in particular having Finley play like Lamar Jackson. The quarterback runs, especially in the critical 80-yard drive that ended with Finley’s touchdown scamper, caught Pittsburgh off guard and were a key difference between victory and defeat. Taylor stuck with the run for once, even when it wasn’t going great. His hand was forced a bit by Finley’s lack of throwing ability, true, but perhaps this zagging when everyone was looking for a zig signifies more interesting maneuvers to come from Taylor. Did the win ensure he keeps his job? I don’t particularly think he was getting fired regardless, but it sure helped.
Among other treasures this game provided, the sight of Bell, Josh Bynes, and Mackensie Alexander—the free agent acquisitions still left standing from the summer—creating big plays all over the field was enough to make it all seem worthwhile, at least for one three-hour block of time. Alexander’s Deion Sanders impersonation after an interception was a bit over the top, especially when he meekly stepped out of bounds seconds later, but it was in keeping with the evening. The slot corner made a few other big plays that were less dramatic, too.
Bell and Bynes provided the toughness and run fits they were brought in for, helping shut down Pittsburgh’s ground game. Those guys know little to nothing of the agony of Bengals-Steelers contests of yore. Usually, it didn’t matter the personnel involved—the Steelers always run it on the Bengals. That it didn’t happen Monday night was perhaps the biggest surprise of all, a truly ominous sign for Pittsburgh going forward.
As for the Bengals, all too often we’ve seen late-season upswings go for naught the following year, the momentum lost in a blizzard of injuries and poor play. But if Monday night shows anything, it’s that the NFL is an incredibly dynamic environment with powerful currents and swirling eddies and shifting sands creating an ocean whose conditions can change in an instant. What seemed foreordained just a couple of weeks earlier, like Tomlin’s Coach of the Year award, can become laughable very quickly. A promising season can unravel in an eye blink, as happened with Burrow’s injury.
If that’s the case, then a strong 2021 in BengaLand is hardly out of the question. There is much work to be done and many decisions to be made, but the possibility is certainly there. It’s been a while since we came out of a Pittsburgh game with such optimism.
Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored four books, including his newest, “The Divine Miss Marble” from Penguin Random House. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.