For us Bengals fans, Week 10 has been circled on the calendar since the schedule came out – it’s Steelers Week! The teams meet again this Sunday at Heinz Field, with Pittsburgh comfortably storming the overall series 66-35. With 101 grudge matches behind them, let’s look back across five decades at 10 of the key moments that define one of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries.
#1: A rivalry is born
Prior to 1970, the Steelers were members of the NFL and the Bengals were in the AFL. With the league merger, they were paired for the first time in the AFC Central (and later the AFC North). Pittsburgh won the first meeting 21-10 in November 1970 at their old Three Rivers Stadium.
The Bengals won the home rematch 34-7 on their way to the AFC Central title, but the Steelers dominated the decade as a whole, winning four Super Bowls in six years. Led by their ‘Steel Curtain’, they held Cincy to 17 points or less in 10 games, including a 7-3 win in 1976 – the lowest score between the teams to date. A rare treat for Cincinnati during this lean spell was a 34-10 home win in 1979, when the 0-6 Bengals forced nine turnovers.
That rare victory hinted at a change in fortunes and the Bengals did indeed gain the upper hand in the Eighties, the last time Cincinnati had bragging rights. In 1980, they finally triumphed in Pittsburgh, as well as at home, denying the Steelers a playoff place for the first time since 1971. The Bengals also did the double in 1981, sealed the division and reached their first Super Bowl against the 49ers (less said about that the better…).
In another major milestone, your author discovered the Bengals on Channel 4’s highlights programme in 1984. I’ve supported them ever since and I’m still waiting for the team to return to the heights they reached more than 30 years ago.
#2: All Wyche on the night
In November 1988, Boomer Esiason threw three TDs and James Brooks rushed for three more as the 8-2 Bengals thrashed the Steelers 42-7, the largest win for either team so far. Head Coach Sam Wyche led them onto a second Super Bowl appearance (again, let’s skirt round that).
Having won six straight, the Bengals’ 21-20 advantage after the 1990 season was the only time Cincy ever led the all-time series before ‘normal’ service resumed. An eight-game streak for Pittsburgh from 1991 to 1994 included a 21-9 victory, in which first-round pick David Klingler got sacked a team-record 10 times in his first NFL start. Quite the debut.
In 1995, trailing 31-13 in the third, the Steelers scored 36 unanswered points to win 49-31. They powered on to Super Bowl XXX, where Neil O’Donnell threw three interceptions in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The QB didn’t help his cause when he joined Cincinnati in 1998, overseeing two wins against his former team in a 3-13 season.
#3: Steelers fooled with fake spike
In the first of those victories in 1998, the Bengals were 20-18 down with the clock ticking down. On a 4th-and-long, O’Donnell found WR Carl Pickens with a 50-yard ‘Hail Mary’, before two runs took the Bengals within field goal range. Everyone expected O’Donnell to stop the clock and take the kick but he faked a spike and found Pickens again for a game-winning TD.
With both teams in new stadia, the Steelers continued to dominate in the 2000s as regular playoff contenders and two-time Super Bowl winners. The teams also recruited new quarterbacks, with Cincinnati drafting Carson Palmer first overall in 2003 and the Steelers selecting Ben Roethlisberger a year later. ‘Big Ben’ now has a 24-7 record against the Bengals, with a 16-10 win in 2015 the last time Cincy tasted victory.
#4: ‘Housh’ shines in stellar season
In 2005, one of the Bengals’ best seasons, they notched a 38-31 victory on their way to the AFC North title. During the game, wideout TJ Houshmandzadeh notoriously used an opponent’s ‘Terrible Towel’ to clean his cleats, offending Pittsburgh players and fans alike.
#5: Carson crocked
The Bengals were undone a few weeks later in the AFC Wild Card game, their first playoff appearance for 14 years. The game, on 8 January 2006, became infamous for a low hit by former Bengal Kimo von Oelhoffen on Carson Palmer, tearing his knee ligaments as he released the ball. Chris Henry also sustained a knee injury while making the 66-yard completion. Cincinnati still built a 17-7 lead under Jon Kitna but they couldn’t maintain the momentum. The Steelers went on to win 31-17 and eventually triumphed at Super Bowl XL, while the Bengals began a tailspin that eventually led to Palmer’s acrimonious departure.
#6: Unhappy New Year
The only thing stopping Cincinnati making the playoffs in the 2006 season was a New Year’s Eve game with the already-out-of-contention Steelers. Tied 17-17 and with 1:33 remaining in OT, the stage was set for Big Ben to throw a heartbreaking 67-yard TD pass, leaving Cincy’s post-season dreams in tatters.
#7: The tackle that changed the rules
In October 2008, an otherwise forgettable 38-10 defeat saw Hines Ward commit a ‘crackback’ block on Cincy linebacker Keith Rivers, breaking his jaw and ending his career. Although legal at the time, such blocks against defenceless players are now outlawed.
By 2011, the Bengals had drafted Andy Dalton as their QB, but the Steelers have dominated the last decade too. The rivalry has only intensified in recent years, as illustrated by a 30-20 loss in 2013. During the game, Terence Garvin rammed into Bengals punter Kevin Huber, breaking his jaw and cracking neck vertebrae. Once again, a rule change ensued, preventing blockers from hitting kickers not directly involved in the play.
The Steelers have won the last 10 meetings, including a 27-3 humbling at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday Night Football and a closer 16-10 win at Heinz Field last year. In that last game, both sides featured second-string quarterbacks – Big Ben was one of several Steelers out injured while Andy Dalton had been unceremoniously benched for rookie Ryan Finley.
#8: Bitter-tweet victory
A 16-10 win for the Bengals in November 2015 was soured by Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict tackling Le’Veon Bell as he ran out of bounds, putting the star RB out for the season with a knee injury. Some felt that Burfict celebrated the injury he’d inflicted, prompting one player to tweet a perceived death threat afterwards.
#9: Bengals self-destruct in Wild Card chaos
In their second postseason clash – the 2015 AFC Wild Card game – the Steelers were 15-0 up after three quarters when Ben Roethlisberger was carted off the field with a shoulder injury. Standing in for Andy Dalton, back-up AJ McCarron led the Bengals to score 16 points. An interception with under two minutes left meant they just had to run down the clock. But in the very next play, Jeremy Hill fumbled, the Steelers recovered the ball and Roethlisberger returned to lead their final drive. Burfict (him again) was flagged for a headshot to Antonio Brown and cornerback Adam Jones had an altercation with Pittsburgh coach Joey Porter. Penalties for both incidents moved the chains enough for Chris Boswell to kick the game-winning FG with 14 seconds left. For many Bengals fans, this still rivals the Carson Palmer injury as an all-time low in franchise history.
#10: Cincy pay the penalty again
In another ill-tempered match-up in 2017, the Bengals led 17-0 but still managed to lose 23–20, thanks to another last-gasp Boswell kick. Ryan Shazier, Joe Mixon and Vontaze Burfict all sustained serious injuries, and JuJu Smith-Schuster was suspended for his hit on Burfict. Between them, the teams incurred seven penalties for unnecessary roughness, unsportsmanlike conduct, roughing the passer and taunting.
So, what can we expect from this 102nd meeting, the first of a new decade and Joe Burrow’s first up-close-and-personal look at the Steelers? I’m not expecting a classic, not least because there could be several key players missing on both sides yet again (although COVID-19 protocols are a new factor).
Shaun looks ahead at the game in his Full 10 Yards Week 10 preview but suffice to say, this one could yet earn a place in the annals of history if Cincy can somehow overcome the odds (they’re 7-point underdogs at best), muster that elusive win and end the Steelers’ perfect 8-0 start in the process. That said, Big Ben is expected to overcome his knee issues to lead the offence, while Pittsburgh’s league-leading defence should overpower the shaky Bengals O-line and get to Joe Burrow. So alas, I expect the Steelers to start the 2020s where they left off – with a win. I predict a 30-20 scoreline in favour of the hosts.
Banner image: Cara Owsley