It was one of the iconic moments of this series, one reinforcing a pecking order that largely has remained intact during the 40-plus seasons they have shared a division within the NFL. The occasion was a Wild Card Game that kicked off the 2005 AFC Playoffs, and the Pittsburgh Steelers were to be hosted by the division-champion Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bengals were quite proud of themselves for winning the AFC North, and they commemorated the occasion by having that painted on a portion of their practice field. A decisive victory for them along the way had come over the Steelers at Heinz Field, and the Bengals' confidence was soaring as the postseason began.
When it was over, when the Steelers' victory was completed, and they had taken the first step of a journey that would end on a platform at Ford Field with the hoisting of the Super Bowl XL trophy by ending the Bengals' season, they celebrated in the visitor's locker room at Paul Brown Stadium.
It's a cheer that's distinct to the Bengals the way the Terrible Towel is distinct to the Steelers. "Who dey? Who dey? Who dey think gonna beat dem Bengals?"
When the players in that victorious locker room shouted it this time, their coach answered them.
The stakes were different this time. Last Sunday night's game was not one between playoff-caliber equals, but one matching teams headed in opposite directions.
The Bengals are the best team in the division. They have the best record. They're playing the kind of football that wins in the NFL these days. They're a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and not only because Peyton Manning's game seems to be leaking oil and Rob Gronkowski went on the injured reserve list last week. The Steelers need a three-game winning streak just to avoid the ignominy of finishing with a losing record.
This was the situation for the 87th game in the series, and while the outcome cannot compare to that 'we dey' moment with Bill Cowher in the 2005 playoffs, 30-20 was a big win for the Steelers. Indeed, its significance has to be viewed within the reality of the season-long flaws that had them in this needing-to-win-out-to-be-.500 predicament in the first place. But for this team in this situation, this victory over the Bengals is one to savor at the very least.
The victory has value primarily because it came in their first outing after being all but mathematically eliminated from this postseason as a result of their defeat at the hands of the Miami Dolphins. Losing as they did, to a mediocre team playing on the road and completely out of its meteorological comfort zone, could have been the occasion when their want-to wavered. It could have been the occasion, not necessarily when they quit but maybe could be described as the time when their interest turned to more personal issues than team issues.
It could've been, but it wasn't.
The Steelers had spent a good bit of the week leading up to this game being asked about the big plays their defense was allowing. Coach Mike Tomlin had referred to "a myriad schematic things, a myriad of personnel things" in his attempt at explaining the five runs and 11 pass plays of 40-plus yards allowed through the first 13 games by a defense coming off consecutive NFL No. 1 rankings.
It's not unreasonable to contend the defense allowing big plays was the cause of the Steelers' two most recent losses – in Baltimore on Thanksgiving night and vs. Miami last Sunday – and those two defeats are the ones that essentially had eliminated them from playoff contention.
Against the Bengals, there were no such lapses by the defense. The defense allowed Cincinnati only 91 net yards and no play of even 20 yards during a first half in which the Steelers raced to a 27-7 lead, and because the defense wasn't hemorrhaging big plays this night the game was well under control.
There have been some significant changes to the Steelers offense since these teams met on the second weekend of this season, and it's reasonable to point to the additions of Heath Miller and Le'Veon Bell to the lineup as the primary causes for the unit's development since September. But what this discounts is the most important factor – the play of Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger was very sharp in some difficult weather conditions, and before the night was over he had broken his own team record for completions in a season and he also got up to 207 pass attempts without an interception.
Where the Steelers truly dominated last Sunday night was on special teams, and it started with Cincinnati's first attempt at a punt when Kevin Huber dropped the snap. The domination extended to Antonio Brown's 67-yard punt return for a touchdown, and the insult to injury on that play was Huber having his jaw fractured on a block by Terence Garvin.
While satisfying, this win seems to fall into the category of too little too late, because whatever playoff hopes remain for them have winning-the-lottery odds associated with the whole scenario. And while satisfying, there is no guarantee the benefits of defeating a Bengals team destined to go into the postseason as the AFC North champions will have any positive carryover into next weekend let alone next season.
But playoffs or not, carryover or none, beating the Bengals proves these Steelers have not given up on this season, it shows they have embraced Tomlin's mandate to focus on the individual task at hand and play to win the game.
That speaks well of their professionalism, and then there's also this: