A moment of silence was held for the shootings in Washington D.C. before the sweet timbre of Cincinnati firefighter John Winfrey shook out a national anthem that was a gorgeous antithesis of every wobbly “8th-place finisher of American Idol 2008” version that usually accompanies these events. All in all, the opening to Monday Night Football was as emotional as a Jon Gruden-James Harrison interview.
Of course, emotion is the privilege of the fan when the Steelers come to town, something somebody should have mentioned to Andy Dalton, who came out like Aroldis Chapman, slinging fastballs at his befuddled receivers. Freud might have called this “over-compensation.” Fortunately, the Bengals D was swarming all over the Pittsburgh offense, the enormously-haired Domata Peko making sure that nobody forgot the least-heralded member of the D-line with an early sack. Carlos Dunlap was everywhere, determined to show he was earning his impressive new paycheck. George Iloka was making killer stops at safety and even Rey Maualuga was playing like an actual linebacker, rather than a lost tourist in Times Square.
Soon Dalton showed that a QB’s best virtue is his ability to forget (which is nonsense, of course, and just something panelists say to seem insightful; a QB’s best attribute is definitely ‘being good at throwing a weirdly shaped ball, especially doing it while men built like industrial furniture try to eat your heart’) and was hitting all of his receivers.
The Bengals offense was finally rolling, the defense wasn’t giving Pittsburgh an inch and so, of course, the team swiftly found itself down 3-0. Because this is what the Bengals do. Despite the striped dominance, Roethlisberger did what he does (no, not that, the other thing…although as he did this, Jon Gruden announced “With Big Ben, it’s always big risk vs big reward” and you could feel his lawyer nodding his head in agreement) and with two big plays the Steelers were set to take a double-digit lead. Enter Pacman Jones, whose pass interference had enabled the first score. Jones stripped the ball free from a mid-air Steeler and Andy Dalton decided to show off his shiny new toys: deceiving the increasingly dirty Troy Polamalu and the increasingly bewildered Ryan Clark, Dalton sent Exciting Rookie #1 Tyler Eiffert down the middle for a 61-yard gain, before Exciting Rookie #2 Gio Bernard forced his way home to give the Bengals the lead.
And then…they never looked back. Even when Rey Maualuga left the field “with cramps” (making the jokes way too easy) and we were left with that mop from the Swiffer commercials playing linebacker. Even when we put Peko in at fullback (causing an increasingly creepy Gruden to giggle “I would LOVE to run behind Peko”). Even when Andrew Whitworth was throwing Polamalu to the floor as the graying Steeler tried his umpteenth dirty hit, even then it still all seemed a little surreal. It’s been years—eight of them, to be precise—since a Bengals team has comfortably dominated the Steelers, and it wasn’t until ESPN turned to a young Steeler fan in the crowd to show his disappointment that we knew it was over. Not because the little blonde kid was so sad, but because he looked so distinctly like Joffrey from Game Of Thrones. And if there’s one thing that GoT teaches us, it’s that bad things (an inferior NFL team/death) happen to bad people (Steelers fans/Joffrey).
Actually, I’m being reminded that the message of GoT is that really awful things happen to people regardless of whether they are good or bad. Oh well.
Bengals 20, Steelers 10
Man Of The Match: Vontaze Burfict was everywhere, leading a punishing Bengals D. Carlos Dunlap was like the world’s largest mosquito. But two touchdowns against the frickin’ Steelers on Monday Night Football as a rookie? Welcome to the AFC North, Giovanni Bernard.