Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are sister cities, with each mirroring the other in terms of landscape, economic viability, and population. Pittsburgh’s breathtaking skyline is aided by a triumvirate of rivers that circle around downtown. Cincinnati is also situated on a river—the Ohio—its origins a deep ball to Mike Wallace away from Heinz Field. Pittsburgh is the 61st most populated city in the country; Cincinnati is 64th. Pittsburgh is the 11th most affordable city in the United States; Cincinnati is 15th.
There is a smattering of a sibling rivalry between the cities that is never more evident than when the Bengals play the Steelers.
Since the dawn of civilization, or at least since 2000, the Steelers have been the big brother (or big sister) in the rivalry, tripping the helpless little guy and rubbing their face in the mud. Since 2000, the Steelers are 19-6 against the Bengals in the regular season, including five in a row. Over that same stretch, the Steelers are 12-6 in the playoffs, winning two Super Bowls and appearing in another. The Bengals have played just three postseason games, losing each of them.
I am not aiming to remind Bengals fans of the misery they’ve suffered over the last 10, 20 years or so. (I am a Pirates fan—I empathize with poorly run organizations.) But the Steelers dominance over the Bengals has created a sort of Napoleon, youngest-child complex among Bengals fans.
There is a certain amount of vitriol pointed by Cincinnati fans at the Steelers that is quite not reciprocated. The Bengals aren’t in the list of top 100 concerns for Pittsburgh fans. They are constantly dismissed as the “Bungles,” and even on the rare occasion that Cincinnati wins, it is dismissed as a fluky outcome.
But I don’t think this is relegated to just the fans. The Steelers have consistently delivered some of their best performances of the season against the Bengals. Take this year for example. Fresh off an embarrassing Thursday night loss to a bad Titans team, the Steelers delivered their most complete game of the year in a dominating win that was not justified by a seven-point margin of victory. (Pittsburgh outgained Cincinnati 431 to 185 and had 22 first downs compared to 11 for the Bengals.)
Cincinnati, however, has a chance to overcome its inferiority complex on Sunday. They face a Steelers squad that is stumbling late in the season, much like last year, due to a bevy of technical issues. Cornerback Ike Taylor, who locked up AJ Green in the first meeting this year, is out with an injury, forcing Keenan Lewis into a crucial role. The Steelers running game, which plowed through Cincinnati’s formidable front seven, has not topped 100 yards in the last four weeks.
There is also the turnover issue, the most maddening part of this recent stretch for Steelers fan. I’ll spare you a diatribe on the absurdity of their turnover issues and just point out the Steelers have forced four turnovers and have turned the ball over 18 times. That’s a -14 TO margin in five weeks. That is very bad.
Despite the Steelers issues—and there are even more chemistry issues that would take a gang of psychiatrists to sort out properly (Ben vs. Todd Haley, Rashard Mendenhall’s pouting, et al)—I still have confidence in the Steelers.
Andy Dalton has ranged from quietly mediocre to below average over the last three weeks (181.3 YPG, 58.2%, 3 TD, 3 INT). He also has a completion percentage under 50% in his three career games against Pittsburgh. His protection, which was strong early on this year, has allowed 15 sacks in the last five weeks. If the line continues to be porous, it could jumpstart a dormant Steelers pass rush. And as strong as The Law Firm has been in recent weeks, he is not the type of running back you have to gameplan for.
This game means everything to both teams. Cincinnati has a shot to end the Steelers playoff hopes. The Steelers have a chance to catch fire late, like they have so many times before.
That’s why I’m siding with the Steelers. They may have issues, and plenty of them, but they are still the older sibling. And until the younger sibling shows that they are ready to step up and throw a punch, I’ll go with the experience.