By BOB LABRIOLA
Who knows, if the NFL had aligned its divisions differently immediately after the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, maybe it would have been Steelers-Bengals instead of Steelers-Raiders as the annual game that sent the winner to the Super Bowl.
Football fans too young to know what a typewriter ribbon looks like see the Cincinnati Bengals as a franchise that rarely is able to get out of its own way. With the exception of 2005 when the Bengals won the AFC North Division title, the franchise has not had a winning record in any season since 1990.
But in the 1970s, with Paul Brown either coaching the team or running it from the front office, the Bengals could make a case for themselves as the second-best team in the NFL. But because the best team in the NFL at the time was in the same division, the Bengals rarely got the recognition they deserved.
Back then, the division was called the AFC Central. Today, it's the AFC North, and on Sunday at Heinz Field, it's going to be a throwback weekend in the sense that the Steelers and the Bengals will play a game in November with supremacy in the division very much at stake.
In 2008, the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens played for the AFC Championship, and since the Steelers won the Super Bowl, a linear argument could be made that the Ravens were the second-best team in the NFL last year. Those teams met three times, with the second game deciding the division champion and the third game deciding the conference champion.
In 2009, the Bengals have established themselves as a team that is right there competing for many of the same things.
"It's really not surprising that they're a player in the (race)," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "They got their franchise quarterback back. They're gaining continuity on defense. They picked up Cedric Benson, who ran very well over the second half of last year. He's back. So it's not surprising that they're in the mix."
The Bengals are very much in the mix, primarily because they are undefeated against division foes so far this season. Cincinnati, at 4-0, already has swept the home-and-home from the Ravens, and they also have wins over the Browns in Cleveland and over the Steelers in Cincinnati.
The Steelers' 6-0 record in the division last year was what propelled them into the playoffs as a No. 2 seed last season; and it was their 5-1 record in 2007 that got them into the playoffs instead of the Browns when both teams finished 10-6. A team's division record, therefore, is merely critical.
"We know what Baltimore is about and what they're capable of. I think that everybody in this division takes a great deal of pride in the quality of the teams in this division and how we play football in this division," said Tomlin. "I'm sure I speak for the entire division when I say we'll put what we do up against any division in football. It's going to be an exciting game inside of Heinz Field, one that we're going to be excited to be a part of. Classic AFC North warfare."
But back to the history lesson.
In 1973, the Bengals and Steelers both finished 10-4, they split the home-and-home series, but Cincinnati won the division with a better conference record.
In 1975, the Steelers were in the process of defending their first Super Bowl championship and posted a 12-2 regular season record, while the Bengals were 11-3 and the Houston Oilers were third at 10-4. Two of the Bengals' three losses that season were to the Steelers, and they were eliminated from the playoffs by a 31-28 defeat in Oakland to the Raiders team that would advance to the conference championship game.
That was then. This season, the Bengals are a team that's tough enough and physical enough to have beaten the Ravens twice and beaten them up both times, a team that's resilient enough to have erased a double-digit deficit in the second half to beat the Steelers.
To Tomlin, none of that is a surprise because of the play of the Bengals' franchise quarterback – Carson Palmer.
"I was just looking at the Baltimore game this morning, Palmer pulled down a third-and-6 and ran for the first down," said Tomlin. "This guy's playing with an edge. He's missed some football. He's committed to driving this team. Guys of that mind-set will move the chains by any means possible. So we have to respect that element of it as we prepare, and ultimately as we play them."
Sunday at 1 p.m., with first place in the division at stake. Just like the old days.