by David Finoli
Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
We’ve asked the question several times in articles during the year—what does it take to make a rivalry? And you get various answers.
For the Raiders and Cowboys, it was a hatred almost 50 years ago that transcends to those who were living at the time… and those newer generations of Steeler fans don’t quite grasp. In the Browns and Ravens… who incidentally were came from the same DNA, namely Art Modell, it’s more a confusing relationship with Pittsburgh. One that is mixed with pity and respect if not always hatred. You still want to beat them senseless when you face them, but you don’t always spit fire when you lose.
That brings us to the Bengals… the damn Cincinnati Bengals. For me, this is the hatred rivalry that endures. A team from Ohio who bore such enemies as Popeye Jones, Chad Ocho Cinco (or Johnson if you’re living in the real world), TJ Houshmandzadeh (boy, I’ve gotten Carpal Tunnel just writing that name) and public enemy number one—Vontaze Burfict.
Now, this is a rivalry we can really sink our teeth into.
How I can tell this a great rivalry is I’ve asked myself one simple question—If the Bengals were playing the 1980 Soviet Union Hockey Team, who would I root for?
Well, I might just be the biggest Vladislav Tretiak fan in the country at that point.
There have been few times Cincinnati was a team that I enjoyed seeing win, except on the rare occasion when it might help the Steelers get a playoff spot, and even then, I’d have to think through it.
Let’s look at how the Bengals came to be. They weren’t always meant to be a Pittsburgh rival. It all started on January 9, 1963, five full seasons before Cincinnati fielded a professional football team. That’s the day Modell unceremoniously fired arguably the greatest coach ever to roam the NFL sidelines in Paul Brown. Brown had founded the team that was named after him (yes, fans… this was a man with an ego for sure) in the old All-America Football Conference. He led them to all four AAFC titles in the league’s existence and when they were merged into the NFL, most thought the more powerful teams of that league would make the AAFC teams mincemeat. He won three more titles in 1950, 1954 and 1955. Overall, in 17 seasons in charge of Cleveland, he was 167-53-8 with one losing campaign (1956 at 5-7), seven championships and 11 division titles. He controlled the franchise and new owner Art Modell didn’t like it.
When the two came to a macho male pissing contest, Modell claimed the team was about to revolt because of the coach’s legendary tough ways. He said he had no choice but to fire him. Brown’s son Mike, who controlled the Bengals after his father death, stated in an article in the Akron Beacon Journal: “He said to me, 'They took my team away from me.' That’s the only time his voice ever broke when speaking to me.” And I always thought the rift was over Brown creating the ugliest uniforms in the league. Anyway, back to how this created the Bengals.
In 1965, Brown began to lobby the new American Football League for a team in Cincinnati. After three years of pushing the AFL finally relented and granted him a club. While he may have wanted to name it the Cincinnati Browns (yes, Bengal fans that was a joke), better heads took control, so it was named after a Cincy team from the 1930s called the Bengals. Even though he didn’t name the club after himself, he sure as hell brought those ugly uniforms with him… except he let them put the word BENGALS in plain boring font on the helmets, otherwise it was a reproduction.
Two years later, the AFL merged into the NFL and Cincinnati was placed into the AFC Central along with—you guessed it—the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were there because Art Rooney graciously offered to move from the NFL to the new AFC to even out the teams (as did… wait for it… the Cleveland Browns).
Rivals were born…or were they? Even though the Bengals have gotten the better of the Steelers in the 2020's, winning four of the six games going into the weekend’s matchup (and have made it to the Super Bowl while Pittsburgh hasn’t even won a playoff game), it’s tough to get fired up about a series where the Steelers have dominated over the years. Overall, the Steelers have a 68-39 advantage that included a dramatic 31-17 victory in the playoffs at Cincinnati in a game where it looked like Pittsburgh would be manhandled.
It began with Carson Palmer tossing a 66-yard completion to Chris Henry on the team’s second offensive play of the contest when the Steelers' Kimo von Oelhoffen grabbed Palmer by the legs, tearing his ACL on his left knee. John Kitna came in to replace Palmer and led the Bengals to a 17-7 advantage early on. The Steelers scored the next 24 points and went on to win Super Bowl XL while Cincy fans still look at Kimo with unmitigated hate as their own Super Bowl dreams were left in the dust.
In the 2015 playoffs, the two met once again in Paul Brown Stadium (now, come on, you knew he’d have to have something named after him) when an expected win turned into another Bengal nightmare. Once again, the home team was the favorite, but this time, they fell behind to Pittsburgh 15-0. They battled back to take the lead 16-15 with 1:50 left after AJ Green caught a 25 yard touchdown pass from another AJ—AJ McCarron. With the game seemingly won, Burfict and Jones showed their lack of football knowledge, intent on injuring rather than winning. Burfict blasted Antonio Brown as he dropped his shoulder to whack Brown in the helmet. Then when Coach Joey Porter came on the field to see if Brown was ok (and to some, antagonize Burfict), Jones went after Porter for idiot move number two. Cincinnati was charged with two 15-yard penalties and the Steelers were now in field goal range unexpectedly. Chris Boswell hit a 35-yarder to win a game they had no business winning, 18-16. It made the play years later when JuJu Smith-Schuster leveled Burfict on a block in 2017 that much sweeter.
So, there you have it. The reason a series that has been so dominated by one team, one that can be so emotional and full of disdain. For me, it was the less than stellar characters Cincinnati acquired in the 21st century that made it this way, which I also feel is the reason they were not more successful despite the immense talent they had. The two will face off again this weekend and there will be no love lost between the squads. It is the divisions most hated rival series.