Steelers vs. Bengals: Examining a Rivalry


Associate editor Justin Williams was born in Cincinnati. Associate editor Adam Flango was born in Pittsburgh. From time to time, they email each other. Here is one of those exchanges.

Adam: So as we’ve discussed many times on the award-winning Fulcher 2 Stay podcast, we maintain a friendship despite coming from different sides of the tracks. You grew up on the mean streets of Cleves, or some other west side town, cheering on Jon Kitna and friends. I came of age in the Pittsburgh suburbs, cheering on Kordell Stewart and friends. This Sunday, our teams meet for the 92nd time, but I feel like there’s a strange relationship between Bengals and Steelers fans. But what I want to figure out is why there seems to be an odd blend of animosity, indifference, fear, and (maybe?) respect in this rivalry. Hell, is this really even a rivalry? (Actually, let’s not go down that rabbit hole. Then we’ll just be parsing the definition of rivalry like people do with the word value in Most Valuable Player and I will become angry.) So let me begin our conversation by asking a simple question: do Bengals fans hate the Steelers more than any other opponent?

First of all, I do think it’s tough to consider this a genuine rivalry, because of how dominant Cincinnati has been. Since November 2015, the Bengals are unbeaten against the Steelers. Hard to call a matchup that one-sided a rivalry, no? #Facts

But to answer your real question, yes, Bengals fans hate the Steelers more than any other team. Most of this stems from the fact that the Steelers have always been good (or at least it feels that way) and have, for the most part, dominated the Bengals head-to-head, usually doing so in the team’s signature brash, physical, baddest-dudes-on-the-field style. Bengals fans don’t like the Ravens, but there is not as much history there, and it’s hard to really hate the Browns. When the Bengals were terrible, the Browns were also terrible, and when the Bengals have been good, the Browns have still been terrible.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m assuming for a long time, that’s exactly how the Steelers viewed the Bengals. I think it developed into a little bit of a rivalry in the early 2000s when the Bengals FINALLY started to have some success—remember the famous Sports Illustrated cover featuring some random Steelers receiver and Bengals legend/future Hall of Famer Caleb Miller?—and intensified with the Carson Palmer injury in the 2005 playoffs. I think it’s remained close to that level since then, especially the last few seasons, when both teams have generally been in contention for the AFC North division title and Wild Card spots.

Still, I’m assuming the Bengals fans’ hatred for the Steelers is greater than the Steelers fans’ hatred of the Bengals, right? I guess that’s my question, the same one I always ask you: How much do Steelers fans’ hate/fear/begrudgingly respect the Bengals? And has it changed or grown considerably in the last 10 years or so?

: Damn, I didn’t realize you were going to come hard with the #facts from the jump. But that SI cover is a perfect microcosm of the Steelers-Bengals blood feud. Caleb Miller (I assume that is in fact his name and you did not make that up because I would have bet one private Andy Dalton acoustic concert that he wasn’t a real player) is clearly trying his hardest, and God love him for that. Then there’s Hines Ward—maybe the most hated Steeler not named Kimo?—smiling as he’s being tackled.

See, in AFC North hatred, the Bengals are third in the Steelers rivalry index. The Ravens are head and shoulders above any other team in football based on the competitiveness of the rivalry (Steelers are ahead 21-18). The Browns are awful, sure, but there is history and location that stokes the fire. With the Bengals…I just don’t know. I don’t fully understand why I don’t fear them. Yes, the Steelers have been historically dominant, so I suppose that plays a role. And yes, the Bengals haven’t won playoff game since the Mesozoic epoch (Get it, that’s when dinos were around!), so that hurts their credibility. But Geno Atkins is really, realy good. Same for A.J. Green and a bunch of other guys. Yet, I feel like the inverse of R. Kelly. My mind’s tellin’ me yes, the other team is good. They are 10-2 and running away with the division. They have the second best point differential in the NFL, tops in the AFC. Six of their 10 wins have come by at least 13 points. But my body, my body’s tellin’ me no, we always beat these guys. So in ranking the AFC teams I hate/fear, the ranking goes something like this: Ravens, Patriots, Broncos, Browns…then maybe the Bengals? It’s either them or—not joking—the Jaguars. (Damn you, Fred Taylor.)

I feel like there could be a few explanations. I could just be an arrogant asshole sports fan that thinks my team is better than your team, regardless of the empirical evidence. Or maybe to have fear, there need to be respect. Since the Steelers have been in the playoffs many times in my life, maybe I only really fear other teams that have playoff pedigrees. Or maybe it is just as simple as not respecting a team when the result has been so similar for so many years. It’s sort of like if you went to the same mom-and-pop restaurant weekly as a child. Eventually, mom-and-pop are going to start to slip and the Belgian waffles may not be as crispy as they once were. But how long would it take for you to admit that they might not be as good as they once were? Would you have such blind loyalty that you would refuse to acknowledge any decline, or would it take food poisoning to make you change your tune?

Also, would it make you feel any better or worse if I legitimately feared the Bengals?

: Oh come on, you have to hate the Bengals more than the Jaguars. If I didn’t have Allen Robinson on my fantasy football team, I would forget that team even existed.

But no, I don’t really care if Steelers fans fear the Bengals, and those Bengals fans who do are basically just living embodiments of the “Cincinnati inferiority complex” stereotype. In fact, I kind of like that Steelers fans don’t—adds to the plucky, underdog nature of the rivalry for Bengals fans (and the team, honestly). Like you said, the Bengals have developed into an increasingly legit AFC North threat—since 2005, the AFC North title breakdown is Steelers: 4, Bengals: 3, Ravens: 3, and unless the Bengals totally beef things the next few weeks, they should nab their fourth this season—but that is a relatively small sample size and relatively recent development (in the grand scheme of things). And most importantly, it hasn’t translated into any postseason success. This is why the general opinion of the Bengals is basically the same as your viewpoint as a Steelers fan. Everyone talks about how talented the team is and how successful they’ve been the past couple seasons, but no one takes them seriously, and no one will until they win in the playoffs. For Steelers fans to really, truly care about the Bengals beyond a couple weeks out of the season, I think the Bengals will have to beat them a couple times in a row, win the division, have some playoff success, and have their most controversial player cause a major injury to a Steelers superstar. (See where I’m going with this? Was that too subtle? I’M SAYING THAT COULD BE THIS YEAR!!!!)

Seriously though, do you think the Le’Veon Bell injury has added to the “rivalry” aspect on the Steelers side of things?

Adam: Look at you, moving beyond the “Cincinnati inferiority complex” and thinking rationally. I hadn’t thought that about the underdog factor fueling the Bengals though.

Well I know when Ray Lewis started murdering people*, that certainly heated up the Steelers-Ravens rivalry. The Burfict hit certainly pissed off a few of the Steelers players. So if they come out angry on Sunday, maybe we’ll take our cue and ramp up the vitriol spewed towards Bengals fans. It’s different than the Palmer injury, though, because our backup is certainly capable and running backs, even if they are one of the league’s best, can be offset by a great passing attack. Now if Ben get’s cut low and his bionic body parts crumble, we’ll have a different story. The idea of an injury heating up a rivalry certainly seems a bit archaic, but it definitely happens, and not just in football. (Keep an eye out, Carlos Gomez.)

I suppose this is all really leading us back to what literally every article written about the Bengals for the last two or three years: let’s see what happens in the playoffs. It seems like a win will do a lot of good to assuage those suffering from CIC. But remember when Donovan McNabb led the Eagles to all those NFC Championship games? He could never get over the hump. And when he finally did, I don’t think it altered his historical footnote because it ended with a Super Bowl loss. I know I will remember Donovan McNabb for, among other things, being close to the Super Bowl but never quite getting there.

So maybe, if this really is your year, Andy Dalton leads the team to a Super Bowl victory and our movie script was correct all along. Joe Flacco won a Super Bowl and I am still convinced he is a bad quarterback and the Ravens still stink. But it definitely stoked the fire of a rivalry. So what I’m trying to say is make me hate you, Andy Dalton. Or don’t. I’m fine living a life without any additional anger or resentment.

*We know that a court of law said Ray Lewis did not murder anyone. But you try telling that to Pittsburgh fans.

: “Because our backup is certainly capable”—was that a 10-years-after-the-fact Jon Kitna burn? Harsh, bro.

I agree with you. Any change in the way the Bengals are perceived—whether it be by the Steelers, the national media, and even Bengals fans—will come via a playoff win. (I know, I know, revelatory stuff. Did you know Andy Dalton got booed at the Celebrity All-Star Game in Cincinnati this past summer?)

Also, even if when Andy Dalton leads the Bengals to a Super Bowl victory, you still won’t be able to hate him. He’ll just pull out his guitar and strum a little John Mayer, and you’ll be swimming in a deep sea of blankets and Andy Dalton adoration in no time…

As far as Sunday’s game specifically, I suppose what interests me most is that I can’t remember the last Steelers-Bengals tilt where the Steelers were clearly the team in greater need of a win. It’s usually bigger for the Bengals or an equally important matchup for both sides. It would obviously still be a big victory for the Bengals and wrap up the AFC North, but even if they lose, they’re still in the divisional driver seat with a good shot at a first-round playoff bye. If the Steelers lose, they’re that much closer to the (admittedly incredible) possibility that they miss the playoffs entirely. As a Steelers fan, do you feel that same way heading into this one?

: Still don’t know why they held the All-Star Game in a city without a professional baseball team…

I do begrudgingly accept that this game is much more important to the Steelers for the first time since, when, 2012? I can’t recall if the Steelers had a chance at the playoffs and lost or they were already eliminated and lost. Either way, as far as playoffs go this year, I think 10-6 gets in. I don’t see the Jets getting there and certainly not any team from the AFC South. So if the Steelers lost this game, then I’d be very concerned against Denver next week.

But more likely, the Steelers will win this Sunday and get into the playoffs at 11-5 as the six seed, only to face the third-seeded Bengals team in the first round. We’ll have to bet more than a couple of sandwiches on that game.

: Yeah, I’m not emotionally ready to even consider that possibility yet. Nope. Nope. Noooopppppe.

For now, I’ll just dream of Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown coming down with a nasty bout of food poisoning on Saturday night, followed by Dalton and Burfict going good cop/bad cop on Sunday afternoon. (Cameramen, beware…)

Worst of luck, bud.

Adam Flango and Justin Williams are currently associate editors at Cincinnati Magazine, a fact that could easily change once their bosses realize how much of their day they waste emailing about the Bengals and Steelers. You can follow them on twitter at @adam_flango and @Williams_Justin.

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