If you’re a football fan within a few miles of the Hudson River, you were surely hardwired to the Jets – Bills game yesterday, which had profound playoff implications.
Simply, if the Jets had won, they were in. If not, then they had to pray that Pittsburgh would lose to the Cleveland Browns. Considering Ben Roethlisberger was 18-2 versus the Browns entering yesterday’s game, the former felt way more palatable for Jets Nation.
But they went to Buffalo, and lost to Buffalo… again. Now called the Rex Hex, Bills coach Rex Ryan surely saved some face by beating his former club both times this season. New Yorkers grew tired of Ryan’s open heart, vulgar monologues and colossal hubris. It cost him his job in NYC, and it seems to already be wearing thin in Buffalo, where he’s already one bad year away from tumbling down the Niagara Falls of his vocation.
And it swung open the playoff door for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who will play their longtime rival, the Cincinnati Bengals. And for those of us who bleed black and gold, we are in eternal gratitude to Ryan and his largely underachieving Bills.
The Steelers (10-6) have assumed the dubious role of the “team no one wants to play” in the playoffs, because of their pyrotechnic offense, because Big Ben can shred any defense, because Antonio Brown can’t be covered and because Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton are stellar, supplemental wideouts.
But the most underrated, understated player on Pittsburgh’s epic offense is someone who was brought as a backup last summer.
If you’d told the Steelers that they’d lose Le’Veon Bell — the best, most complete running back in the NFL — for the season, and would barely lose a beat, they’d have demanded a urine sample.
But DeAngelo Williams slid into Bell’s spot behind Ben, and the Steelers felt nary a hiccup. He rumbled for 907 yards on just 200 rushes (4.5 yards per carry) and scored 11 touchdowns. And while he’s not Bell in the flat (who is?), Williams also snagged 40 passes, making him invaluable in January.
But yesterday, Williams had his ankle rolled — really rolled — making everyone wince when he was wheeled off the field. Heading into this weekend’s game against the Bengals (12-4), it’s hard to imagine the Steelers (10-6) having a fraction of their traction without a robust running game. Williams sets up all the play-action passing that has allowed Big Ben to become perhaps the most potent passer in the NFL right now.
The aggregate injuries are as much a story as any strategy. And when you consider the source of these maladies, you can understand why this feud is fueled beyond the already ornery cadence between two teams in the same division.
The Bengals lost all-world tight end Tyler Eifert for a few weeks because of a concussion sustained against — you guessed it — the Steelers. Eifert scored a touchdown yesterday, giving him 13 on the season, which led the NFL for tight ends. The former Notre Dame standout has been a revelation this year. His return should aid neophyte QB AJ McCarron, who is likely to start once again this Saturday.
And then, of course, the Bengals lost starting QB Andy Dalton to a broken thumb, suffered against — you guessed it! — the Steelers. Dalton was well on his way to his best season as a pro before he cracked his hand while tackling a Steeler defender who had just picked off a Dalton pass.
And, of course, the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell for the year when he was tackled by — you guessed it! — Vontaze Burfict of the Bengals. Burfict chafed the Steelers by laughing while Bell writhed in agony on the sideline. Burfict already has a reputation as someone who walks on the precarious line between hard, heady play and dubious, dirty play.
Indeed, Roethlisberger and the Steelers griped to refs about another play later in their latest game, when Burfict seemed to drive his head toward Big Ben’s knees well after the whistle. It was a similar play to the one that knocked the Steelers QB out of action earlier in the season in St. Louis. The fact that it was the toxic tandem of Burfict and Bengals always adds a little sizzle.
When the two teams met a few weeks back in Cincinnati, a game the Steelers won (payback for a game they blew to the Bengals, in Pittsburgh), fists were flying long before the final whistle. The rancor runs deep on the field, and into the past. Marvin Lewis was once on the Steelers sideline, as an assistant under Bill Cowher, before he made his bones in Baltimore and got his head-coaching chops in the Queen City.
And there was a rather painful playoff experience, in Cincinnati, a decade ago. Carson Palmer, who has been nuclear in Arizona this year, was leading a potent Bengals team that many thought had a serious shot at the Super Bowl. But in the first quarter against the Steelers, Palmer had his knee rolled and snapped by Kimo Von Oelhoffen on a play that would have drawn a flag, fire and ire from the Bengals, their fans and the league.
The Steelers, of course, went on to win Super Bowl XL, while the Bengals never quite recovered, and Palmer wound up leaving Cincinnati, replaced by the much younger Dalton.
And if that weren’t enough, I am a Steelers fan who is in love with a Bengals fan. Somehow, my girlfriend, from California, adores the Cincinnati Bengals. If you live somewhere around the Ohio, Allegheny or Monongahela, such a sad happenstance is quite possible.
But when a boy from the Big Apple meets a girl from Long Beach, the last thing you’d anticipate is a frothing Steelers fan since 1976 falling for a lady who owns an Andy Dalton jersey.
We’ve already agreed to not spend Saturday together. The potential for vitriol, smack talk, and silent treatment is too toxic. The Steelers and Bengals have no such option. And you get the sense there’s no one they’d rather play, and pummel, than each other.
The Steelers have opened as a slight favorite. That’s a perilous proposition, with epic, karmic implications. The Bengals have, far and away, the better roster. Take Antonio Brown and Big Ben out of the equation and you’d be hard pressed to find a few Steelers who would clearly start for Cincinnati.
But they don’t play these games online, on paper or in theory. This is the third game between two teams with profound bitterness between them. It’s fun, in a sense, and tense in another.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals: Saturday, January 9 @ 8:15 EST on CBS.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.