Over the course of their history, the Steelers have had these kinds of rivalries with different teams. Through much of the 1970s, it was the Oakland Raiders. During the Jerry Glanville 1980s, it was the Houston Oilers. Then the Baltimore Ravens. And today, thanks largely to that Wild Card Round Game in Cincinnati last January, it's the Bengals.
Steelers-Bengals only recently developed into the kinds of street brawls that characterized those other series, and one significant reason why is it took so long for the teams to reach a comparable level of animosity is that the "two trains, one track" status rarely could be applied to Steelers vs. Bengals because rarely were the two teams competitive at the same time.
Steelers-Raiders had that in the 1970s, because the teams met in the AFC Playoffs five straight times, from 1972-76, with three of those meetings for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The rivalry with the Oilers had its genesis in the 1978-79 AFC Championship Games before it descended into the land of cheap shots and late hits. Steelers-Ravens was a direct descendent of Steelers-Browns, and during the late 2000s it always seemed as though the regular season matchups were staged solely to determined the home team for the inevitable meeting in the playoffs.
Steelers-Bengals long has been different. In a series that began with the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, the Steelers have won 58 of the 93 games in the all-time series, including both of the playoff matchups. Not surprisingly, it's those two games that have engendered much of the animosity.
In 2005, the Steelers visited Cincinnati for an AFC Wild Card Game, an occasion still remembered by Bengals fans for the knee injury sustained by quarterback Carson Palmer on a play that was legal at the time but isn't anymore. Since the Steelers went on to defeat Indianapolis, Denver, and then Seattle in Super Bowl XL, some Bengals fans believe it's their Lombardi Trophy that lives in Pittsburgh because of a cheap shot on their quarterback.
Things percolated even more during last year's Wild Card Round, when the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown and the Bengals lost their poise and a game they seemingly had under control. Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict won't play on Sunday at Heinz Field because of a three-game suspension levied by Commissioner Roger Goodell for his shot to Brown's head that concussed the Steelers All-Pro receiver, and as soon as last year's game ended there was an anticipation that began to build for what many believed would be a bloodbath this year.
"That matchup needs no endorsement from me," said Coach Mike Tomlin at the portion of his news conference today that was dedicated to previewing the upcoming opponent. "We're excited about it. Often times, our past shared experiences weigh into the anticipation, but that won't be our concern this week. We'll focus with this group on their group this time around and let past history be past history."
The most recent history of Steelers-Bengals is a game that included six turnovers and 18 penalties, and not a lot of those 18 were for false starts either. Plus the injuries to Roethlisberger and Brown. Stoking the fire this time is social media, which didn't exist when George Atkinson was clubbing Lynn Swann from behind, and Chuck Noll was threatening Jerry Glanville at midfield.
But even though Steelers-Bengals simmered on social media in the weeks and months after that playoff game, Tomlin said he'll offer no special warning instructions to his team in the run-up to Sunday's 1 p.m. kickoff at Heinz Field.
"I thought largely our guys handled themselves appropriately and didn't get consumed by the emotions that comprised the recent elements of the matchup," said Tomlin, "and I don't anticipate anything changing this time around. Our focus is a singular one, and that's to win the game. And we realize that to win the game you can't beat yourself. That's part of our everyday culture in terms of how we approach our business. I don't have to wait for a game like this or a matchup of significance like this where the emotions run high to express that. I don't subscribe to that school of thought. That's just part of our everyday business."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Unfortunately, I don't have any updated information on Ryan Shazier. He's at the doctor's office as we speak being evaluated. I'm sure we'll have something in the form of a release later today, or even his practice participation tomorrow to give you an indication of where he is. I know he felt good about his circumstance after the game, but we'll let the medical experts determine that and his status. We'll react accordingly.
"There were a number of men who missed last night's game who have a significant chance to be available to us this week. Cody Wallace heads that list. Markus Wheaton also is on that list. And Rosie Nix. So we'll continue to monitor those guys. They were in a day-to-day like category a week ago and didn't make it. Their practice participation generally will be an indication of whether that's heading in a positive direction or a negative one. We could obviously use a contribution from those men, but as always we'll focus on the guys who are available to us."