For all intents and purposes, Monday night is a playoff game for the Bengals.
Crap—it’s a prime time game. We know what that means. Double crap—it’s against Pittsburgh. We really know what that means.
This series has been so one-sided it scarcely has a second dimension. The two teams have met twice a year since becoming division rivals in 1970. (Fun fact! In the first two years of the franchise, Cincy played in the AFL West, meaning trips out to San Diego, Denver, Oakland, and Kansas City). Pittsburgh leads the all-time series 59-35. The Bengals have swept the season series eight times in that span; should Pitt win Sunday, that would make an even twenty sweeps, which is making me gag just thinking about it. The strike year of 1982, when the teams only played once, doesn’t count—but of course the Steelers won that game too.
Outside of a 15-6 run of good play during the glory days of Kenny and Boomer (incredibly, the Bengals once beat the Steelers six straight, from 1988-90, including several blowouts), Cincy has been beaten and, worse, bullied by Pittsburgh. For essentially my entire life, the script has been the same—an early Bengals score allows for some brief hope, which is then ruthlessly stamped out by a flurry of turnovers, sacks, and big offensive plays by a rotating series of villains clad in black and gold.
That was how the game back in October at Heinz Field played out, a 29-14 loss that started well and ended in the usual, frustrating manner. At the time, it felt as though the meaningful portion of the season had ended. Yet thanks to the incompetence of the Greater AFC (Pitt and Pats aside), somehow the Bengals remain in the playoff hunt, though it’s arguable whether fans should really desire such trauma yet again.
But no mixed emotions here—Bengals Nation always want to beat Pittsburgh. Can it possibly happen? In the Andy Dalton Era, the Bengals have won just three times against their archrivals, with just a single, solitary, lonesome W in the Jungle. That shouldn’t be possible, yet here we are. (In fairness, Cincy lost two of those home games when Dalton was injured in 2015, the best team Red’s had around him, natch.) Pittsburgh is currently six-point favorites on the road, a new standard for underdog-dom in the Dalton Era. In other words, Vegas thinks the Steelers are nearly ten points better than the Bengals. Yikes.
So what happened in those three games the Bengals did win with Andy at the helm? First and foremost, they played defense. Very good defense. The final scores were 13-10, 16-10, and 20-10. Yes, just a touchdown and a field goal allowed, and that was it. In the legendary 2012 win, which clinched the AFC North title and was Dalton’s first over Pittsburgh, Leon Hall’s pick-six was Cincy’s only TD on the day, and Reggie Nelson’s 4th quarter INT set up the game-winning field goal. In 2013, the lone home win, Cincy’s D forced three three-and-outs in the second half before Nelson had another interception as the Bengals put up ten unanswered points. In 2015, the Bengals had a pair of 4th quarter picks (3 on the day), including a sensational one by Shawn Williams, to forge a comeback win.
Those defenses were better than the current edition, I think we’d all agree, but the elements remain for a bravura effort. Obviously, the onus is on Vontaze Burfict to not only make big plays but also avoid the nonsense the Steelers will surely wave in his face like a red cape. Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Carl Lawson—these guys need to generate the steady pressure that keyed the ’12 and ’13 wins in particular. That won’t be easy, as Pittsburgh has upgraded its O-line since those days, in part a reaction to the Bengals pounding Ben Roethlisberger (9 sacks in the three games). Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert will miss the game with a PED suspension, and while replacement Chris Hubbard is decent, the Bengals need to turnstile him to hold down that potent Steelers offense. The other tackle, Alejandro Villanueva, is nicked up, but seems likely to play.
However the key, in my opinion, will be secondary play. As you can tell from the above recaps, in the Bengals wins they frustrated Ben Roethlisberger with tight coverage. There wasn’t a ton of deception going on, just lots of winning battles downfield and smart safety play. Cincy has usually locked up Antonio Brown—in 15 games the wideout has topped 100 yards just thrice, two times in 2014 and the 2015 playoff game. The key is not letting Martavis Bryant or JuJu Smith-Schuster make decisive plays. JuJu was left totally uncovered when he scored a key touchdown in the game earlier this season—that’s the kind of thing that can’t happen if the Bengals expect to win. A pick or three would help too. Roethlisberger has thrown a dozen already this season, so there’s no reason Cincy can’t get hands on a few (except for the fact they only have seven interceptions all year, and are -7 in turnover differential).
As for the offense, Joe Mixon’s bust-out game against the Browns was a welcome sight. Remember, he was doing just fine in the game at Heinz Field before Cincy inexplicably forgot about him in the second half, and he will be needed in this one. Without a sturdy rushing attack, the Bengals will be even more reliant on A.J. Green, and the Steelers have had success in keeping Green from beating them single-handedly (unlike the Ravens, for example). Pittsburgh’s phenomenal linebacker Ryan Shazier limped out of the Sunday night game against the Packers, and if he can’t go, that will surely help. Come hell or the flooded Ohio River, Cincinnati needs to commit to the run and make it work. Otherwise, the Steelers excellent defense will fatten up on Bengal meat, as it has so often in the past.
One other thing—in so many of these losses to those towel-waving jackwagons, the Bengals folded mentally as much as physically. Especially since the playoff-game-that-won’t-be-mentioned, it seems Cincy approaches these matchups waiting for the other steel-toed boot to drop, usually right on their collective head. Just once, a little bit of fortitude in the second half would be nice to see against Mike Tomlin’s bunch. The Steelers aren’t exactly an emotionally sturdy group—they only seem that way against the Bengals, sadly. A little turnabout is overdue.
So there is a path to victory: run the ball, play tough defense, don’t crumble at the first sign of difficulty. But let’s be honest, the 2012 and 2013 Steelers were mediocre. Both finished 8-8, and were even with or a little behind those young Bengals in terms of talent. The 2015 Bengals were better than the Steelers, though of course the fates refused to favor them. This season, even the most devout Cincy fan (hello!) would be hard pressed to argue that the Bengals are in the same company as the bete noires from western PA. Perhaps the talent is closer than their records and play thus far would indicate, but matters will have to go against form for the Bengals to spring the upset.
Of course, it would be particularly Bengals-esque to best Pittsburgh, spurring late-season-winning-streak talk in the Queen City, only to then flop against the Bears. That would almost be as painful as another drubbing at the hands of the Steelers.
Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.