There was a time the Bengals beating the Steelers made a statement. There was a time the Bengals beating the Steelers meant more than one win, one step in the AFC North race, rather a grand victory for franchise perception.
There was a time the Bengals beating the Steelers was motivated by validation.
For seasons, years, even decades, the Bengals trudged upstream for recognition at the confluence of three rivers. From 1991 on, the Steelers reigned as the example of excellence for proud, Midwestern football traditions. The Bengals reigned as their whipping boy. Losing streaks of eight in a row, five games twice and blowouts by 31, 28 and 27 points produced bi-annual reminders of the pecking order.
The Steelers played the role of the bully.
As the Bengals approach a December to be defined by their river rivalry, however, the dynamic differs. The idea of the Bengals fighting for perception fell by the wayside upon sweeping the division in 2009. The concept of the Bengals toughness not matching up to black and yellow standards disappeared amid blood-stained jerseys left in the rubble of the 13-10 victory in 2012 at Heinz Field, slashing the Steelers' postseason aspirations.
Should the Bengals win Sunday, they would own victories in three of the last four meetings against Pittsburgh for the first time this millennium. More importantly, Cincinnati could be personally responsible for placing the Steelers on the brink of playoff elimination for the second time in three years. Those two seasons sandwiched a Bengals division title.
Fearing the aura of Pittsburgh no longer enters the conversation inside Paul Brown Stadium.
"That kind of went away a while back," Marvin Lewis said. "I think our football team has grown way beyond that."
This month, finding a way to finish off the Steelers and repeat as division champions would cement the notion the Bengals could now be the bully.
"It's not something that, 'Oh, it's Pittsburgh.' No, no, no. What about us?" said special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, whose seen the drastic change since arriving with Lewis in 2003. "I think that's the way other teams feel now, too. There's a level of respectability. That's the reason I do this. You want to make your opponent respect you and I think they do respect us."
Back in the day, though …
"They probably didn't," Simmons said. "They probably didn't. Now it's a different deal. It's a different time."
Andrew Whitworth spouted his view bluntly and without hesitation.
"It's just our time," the 32-year-old left tackle said. "It's more about trying to find a way to make this your time to own the division."
At the old Three Rivers Stadium on Dec. 2, 1990, Pittsburgh quarterback Bubby Brister dropped back trailing by four points in the closing minutes and attempted a pass for running back Dwight Stone. A Bengals rookie cornerback named Mitchell Price snagged his only interception of the season to secure a dramatic 16-12 Bengals victory. It was their sixth straight against Pittsburgh.
That moment marked the end of competitiveness in this rivalry and dawning of a dark era for Bengals fans. The next year Pittsburgh began an eight-game winning streak against Cincinnati.
Between then and the conclusion of the 2008 season, the Bengals would only beat the Steelers 13 times in 47 meetings.
The last time Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh three out of four games was from Oct. 11, 1998, to Nov. 28, 1999. Rodney Heath's 58-yard interception return for a touchdown made the difference that day.
Once Marvin Lewis arrived in Cincinnati, however, changing the culture was the immediate movement. That meant utilizing the same principles he practiced as an assistant with the Steelers and defensive coordinator in Baltimore to ascend this franchise to legitimacy in the AFC North.
"We had to build a physical football team to match the physicality of the teams in our division," Lewis said. "That's what these guys know you can't come here and not be a physical football player because you stick out like a sore thumb. You are not willing to strap it up and go to work you can't stay here. That's what I knew from my time in those places."
The scene of T.J. Houshmandzadeh wiping his foot with the Terrible Towel in 2005 at Heinz Field felt like a landmark moment in turning the tide in the Lewis era. Then Kimo Von Oelhoffen hit Carson Palmer in the knee.
Not until the division sweep of 2009, then the later arrival of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, did the flashes of success shift into consistent demands of respect.
Since the start of the 2009 season, the Bengals rank at the top of the North battles. They are tied with the Ravens for the division lead in playoff berths (four) and division titles (two). The Steelers have won it once, but also have a Super Bowl ring on their finger from 2010.
Cincinnati finding a way to finish off the division this month would mean the Ravens, Bengals and Steelers each would have enjoyed one run of back-to-back division championships since Lewis took over in Cincinnati.
"That's another huge step," Whitworth said. "That's why these next couple weeks in front of us is another huge step this franchise can take."
And, of course, the 9,000-pound gorilla in the room of the playoff victory still looms in the distance.
As always seems to be the case, the road to the playoff opportunity goes through the Steelers – this time twice in four weeks. Lewis knew such would be the case the moment the schedule came out in April.
"It was going to decide our fate, basically," Lewis said on his initial reaction to the rough final month also featuring a trip to Cleveland and matchup with Peyton Manning on Monday Night Football. "Hopefully you have some distance because these games are going to really matter. And they are. It has come down to this. Regardless of what we've done in the previous 12 games we've played now it comes down to these four football games but the most important one is the one this week. That's what counts right now."
Memories of the broken jaw laid on Kevin Huber last December, Lewis' 2-10 record at home against the Steelers and so many demons from decades of debacles against this rival may haunt the minds of fans in the stands, but don't exist anymore between the lines, according to the players.
This month will act as the defining chapter in the most recent turn of this rivalry.
"We are the hunted," Simmons said. "That's OK. That's a good thing. We like it that way."
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