By Jason Keidel
DeAngelo Williams, relatively new to the white-hot hatred, branded it best. The stalwart running back called any Bengals – Steelers contest a “double-chin-strap” game. The implication, of course, is that the bone-crunching hits require extra equipment to keep your helmet — or your head — intact.
There are endless layers to this AFC North rivalry, and myriad subplots to yesterday’s game, won by the Steelers, 24-16. Both teams entered Heinz Field on Sunday with ample missions, motivation and vendettas.
The Bengals came to exact some payback. Not only for losing to the Steelers in last year’s playoffs, but the way they lost, with a Jeremy Hill fumble and Vontaze Burfict brain cramp.
The Steelers had some payback of their own. Maybe Burfict didn’t suit up for the game, but his spirit surely hovered over Heinz Field. The gifted Bengals linebacker was a corporeal wrecking ball last year, plowing the Steelers into submission. He not only knocked Antonio Brown unconscious in last year’s playoffs, he also injured Ben Roethlisberger — who missed several games — and ended Le’Veon Bell’s season.
On a day befitting the old NFL Films mythology, with sweeping rain and wet bodies splashing and sliding across the field, you could half hear John Facenda’s booming baritone, massaged by the music of the Philadelphia philharmonic. “Playing in the wind and cold November mud…”
And the final score was equally befitting two teams that are essentially three-to-seven points apart, depending on the time and place they play. Yesterday tilted toward the Steelers, who are quickly becoming division favorites.
Did the Steelers send a message? Was it heard beyond the AFC North? If they can beat Washington and the very talented Bengals, sans arguably their best player and perhaps the best running back in the NFL, how good will they be once Le’Veon Bell returns from suspension in Week 4?
As always, the Steelers will be health-and-defense dependent. Last year they hemorrhaged passing yards, and have devoted copious chunks of their draft to tightening up their secondary. So far, so good. But their real mettle won’t be tested until the chill grows brown leaves and long sleeves.
But even in defeat, the Bengals sent their own message, if not to the league, then to themselves. They were within one score of the Steelers, on the road, in the rain, without Burfict, and without all-world tight end, Tyler Eifert. Both will be there for the second half of the season.
And they are still getting their offensive bearings in their first year without potent wideouts Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, who migrated to Atlanta and Detroit, respectively.
They still have Jeremy Hill, who has much to prove after a lackluster 2015, and Giovanni Bernard, who befuddled the Steelers with a startling catch-and-run that led to a late-game touchdown. Andy Dalton is still quite potent in every month before January. Of course, like all high-end quarterbacks, he will truly be measured and remembered for his deeds after Christmas.
Bengals fans are once again blaming the refs for Sunday’s loss. After it appeared that Tyler Boyd was on the ground before the ball squirted out, the refs ruled it a fumble. The media and masses have even given it a Twitter handle, #KneeGate.
This is what historically losing franchises and their fans do, look beyond the team and the town for excuses. Look beyond the physical and blame the metaphysical, scour the gridiron for conspiracies.
Likewise, the Bengals didn’t really lose last year’s playoff game; the refs wrenched it from them. Forget that Burfict all but beheaded Antonio Brown on the final drive. Forget that Burfict’s paycheck basically takes a detour to the league office, where they deduct his yearly fines, before it gets to his checking account.
It’s no coincidence that this is the sad static that comes from Cincinnati, which has as much talent as any team in the NFL, yet hasn’t won a playoff game in a quarter-century. What do the sport’s monolithic franchises — from Green Bay to New England to Pittsburgh — have in common? They look within, never make excuses and are always growing and mutating with the times.
The Bengals may hate the Steelers, but they can learn a lesson or two from them. And then they just might be ready to beat them.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.