The Best Rivalry In The NFL Grows - By Greg Stephens

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

First, I would like to not only welcome you to my first column on Steelers Fever, but I would like to also thank the editorial staff for allowing me to be a part of the Steelers family. Second, I would like to address an issue and get it out of the way. I was born in, raised in, and currently reside in the Greater Cincinnati area. I am indeed a Bengals fan. I have no doubt when I e-mailed the editors of the site and let them know that up front, my e-mail was probably met, initially, with the same reaction you are currently experiencing.

FansI want you to know that I do, indeed, have ties to the Steelers. My brother grew up a Steelers fan. My son's second favorite team is the Steelers. My brother-in-law is from Pittsburgh and a huge Steelers fan. Last year, I took my family to the Steelers training camp and enjoyed it immensely. I have met Larry Foote at an autograph signing and found him to be a very nice guy. I have a bunch of Steelers memorabilia in my home. I went to the same college as Big Ben.

Why would I want to write for Steelers Fever? That is a fair question. The truth is, I love to write, I love football, and I have a great respect for the Steelers organization, as well as their rich history. I have assured the editors, and will assure you, the readers, that I will write with integrity and professionalism with regard to the Steelers.

As I said, I respect the Steelers team, their history, and their accomplishments throughout the years. Growing up in the seventies, you couldn't help but root for Bradshaw, Blier, Swann, Stallworth, Harris, and the entire Steel Curtain defense. Those teams not only dominated all other NFL teams, but decimated them. I still remember watching Super Bowl XIV in 1980, and rooting for the Steelers to beat Ferragamo's Rams.

There is something else I have come to respect in regards to the Steelers, however. As a Bengals fan, I deeply respect the long standing rivalry between these two teams. The rivalry itself goes back to the days of Noll and Brown. The two teams were always in the same division, played in carbon-copy stadiums, and were separated by a relatively short geographical distance. The rivalry between the Bengals and Steelers was almost as great as that between the Bengals and original Browns, or the Steelers and those same Browns.

I remember my first personal taste of the rivalry. It was November 10, 1996. I had been to many games at Riverfront Stadium, as I refuse to call it Cinergy Field, prior, but this date was the first time I had seen the Steelers come to town. This game was the only sell-out that season. My mom, my father-in-law, and I went, pretty much expecting the Bengals to get blasted because, frankly, it was the nineties. It was extremely cold, and by the middle of the second quarter, the game appeared to belong to the Steelers.

Sitting two rows behind us was a married couple. I think they were from Pittsburgh. The husband kept cackling in that first half as the Steelers did everything right, and the Bengals - well, didn't. The twist in this story is that the wife was from Cincinnati, and was a diehard Bengals fan. I have never understood that dynamic, much as I have never understood republicans marrying democrats, but so it was. The husband didn't annoy us Bengals fans nearly as much as he did his wife, and he was laying it on good.

With less than one minute left in the first half, the Steelers scored and this guy went nuts. He was standing, he was heckling all of us, he was having a good time. His wife was yelling at him, and the rest of us were actually laughing at the two of them fighting. They continued fighting through the ensuing kick-off, which David Dunn then returned for touchdown as the clock wound down. As soon as Dunn crossed the goal line, he shut up immediately. His wife started rubbing in on him good, as did we. Through it all, this rivalry was not only very intense, but also very fun when handled responsibly by mature adults. Everyone had a good time and that's what football is supposed to be about. Fast-forward to 2006. Ten years have passed since that game. The rivalry has existed in name, but not really in spirit. Everyone knows the tremendous job Bill Cowher has done with the Steelers during that decade. Everyone knows about that same decade of failure for the Bengals. The rivalry has been a sham, because frankly, the two teams have been in the same league literally, but not even close to being in the same league figuratively.

That is, until the 2005 season. The Steelers and the Bengals spent the entire 2005 season fighting competitively for the division championship for the first time ever. In years past, when one of the teams was dominating the division, the other wasn't really a factor. In 2005, both teams were in sync. Both teams produced explosive results, with vastly different styles. Both teams finished the season at 11-5. Both teams won at the other team's field. Both teams made the playoffs.

Something happened on January 8, 2006, that turned a rekindled rivalry into possibly the biggest rivalry in the NFL today. It was the first round of the playoffs and Pittsburgh came to Cincinnati. The opening kick-off went to the Bengals, with no outstanding results. The first play of the first drive was a non-productive rush. Then ... it happened - the second play.

Carson Palmer dropped back to throw on second down. The Steelers pash rush, as one would expect, was tough. Palmer fires a beauty to Chris Henry for a sixty-six yard gain. As I am watching the catch and thinking that night would be our night, I heard someone say, "Carson's hurt."

I turn to look. As I do so, the entire Paul Brown Stadium went deafly silent. As Carson writhed on the ground, holding his knee, sixty-five thousand Bengals fans thought, simultaneously, the same thing - "Oh sh*t". I am also a Baptist pastor and, while my language was a little more mild, the sentiment was the same.

Understand that I am not one of the cry-babies that thought von Oelhoffen took a cheap shot on Palmer. It was a clean hit that, unfortunately, involved the knee. Whenever the knee is involved, anything can happen. I have chronic knee problems from just twisting it slightly while jogging ten years ago. Sometimes I go to bed and lay there in pain. Things happen to the knee.

I am also not one of those fans that insist the result of the game would have been different had Palmer played the whole time. I don't know if the Bengals would have won. I don't know if they would have lost. It doesn't matter. It probably would have been a close game. It might have even went down as the best game of the entire playoffs.

There is one thing I do know, however.

As the Bengals are one week away from traveling to Pittsburgh for the first meeting of the two since that fateful night, the game will be as it has never been before. The rivalry is on a level that neither side has ever seen. How that translates into the results of the game remains to be seen. Regardless of the score, the winner will be clear - the fans, and the sport of football as a whole.

Forget the Cowboys and Redskins. Never mind Chicago and Green Bay. This is the best rivalry in the NFL today - and away we grow.