CINCINNATI – It was a few weeks ago, just before Thanksgiving to put the timeline in the context of this holiday season, that one of those advanced metric outfits calculated percentages on a bunch of NFL-related issues, and one of the findings was that the Steelers had a better chance of winning the AFC Championship, and earning the Super Bowl berth that comes with it, than they did of overtaking the Cincinnati Bengals to defend their AFC North Division championship.
Maybe the same team of geeks can re-jigger the odds of the Steelers' chances to win the AFC North in the wake of 33-20 yesterday at Paul Brown Stadium, but once you start digging into the tiebreakers it again becomes clear "long-shot" is still understating the Steelers' situation. But if the Steelers' victory here yesterday didn't really advance their prospects of winning the AFC North, it sent a message to the team currently atop the AFC North.
Early in the week – and these division battles tend to percolate for almost the whole week leading up to the actual playing of the game – Coach Marvin Lewis said something about the only way for his Bengals to really be the division champions is to defeat the division champions, which was an obvious and direct reference to the Steelers, who won the AFC North last season and were the upcoming opponent. There was nothing untoward or inflammatory about what Lewis said, because the concept of having to defeat the defending champion to be a true champion has been a part of sports for forever, and it also just so happened that the Bengals officially could have clinched the division title by defeating the Steelers yesterday, which would have given them a season sweep of this series for the first time since 2009.
But it didn't happen, and for the Bengals franchise that has been a recurring issue whenever they've had to line up opposite the team that has its logo on only one side of its helmets. The Steelers and Bengals have been in the same division since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger – 45 years ago now – and with the exception of a close-to-10-year span from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s before Bill Cowher was hired, the Steelers have controlled this series.
Yesterday marked the 91st installment of this series, and the Steelers' victory was their 57th (.626 percent) overall, their 27th win in the 46 games that have been played in Cincinnati (.587 percent). Cowher was 22-9 vs. the Bengals, including a win in the only postseason matchup, and after yesterday Mike Tomlin's record is 13-5.
None of that history had any impact on the path these teams had been taking through 2015 to arrive here yesterday for a game CBS saw as sufficiently compelling to utilize one of the limited number of vetoes the NFL allocates to its broadcast partners to be used to prevent games from being flexed to a different time and possibly even switched to a different network. The Bengals were 10-2 and had arrived for kickoff as the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a roster considered to be as talented and deep as any in the NFL. The Steelers were 7-5 and had weathered two separate injuries to Ben Roethlisberger that had cost him four starts and almost a full half in each of two other games, but because the NFL doesn't grade on a curve they also were in a fight to squeeze into the AFC's six-team playoff field.
That likely made the Steelers the more desperate team, but the Bengals knew that a victory could go a long way toward preventing their nemesis from even being able to qualify for the same postseason they were hoping to dominate this time. That Cincinnati victory didn't happen, which was bad, but the injuries the Bengals sustained along the way to this defeat were what made it so much worse. The worst was when quarterback Andy Dalton injured his right thumb seriously enough that he very well could be done for the rest of this season.
The Steelers won the game even though their Roethlisberger-powered passing attack was less than its prolific self, and in fact they ended up winning the game in the same areas that cost them the game against the Bengals back on Nov. 1 at Heinz Field. The Steelers won by being better on possessions downs, by being more efficient in the red zone, by compiling a better turnover ratio including included takeaways that directly impacted the scoreboard, and by giving as good as they got.
"I think it's going to be chippy just because of the stakes," Coach Mike Tomlin had said on the Friday before the game. "That's just part of it. I thought our game (in Pittsburgh on Dec. 28) last year was chippy because of the stakes. That just comes with football at this time of the year. I'm comfortable with that. I like our team under those circumstances. I think we're built for it."
In winning here as they did, the Steelers lived up to Tomlin's words, and at the same time they served notice to the Bengals that there very well could end up being a third one of these.