It seems borderline surreal, a role reversal as stunning as it is definitive.
A year ago, the Cincinnati Bengals came to Heinz Field in December and emerged with a 13-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. That propelled Cincinnati to a second straight postseason berth and sent its longtime nemesis into a downward spiral from which it is still trying to recover.
“I think (it was big),” Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green said. “The Steelers had our number every year, even when I first got here.”
Not anymore. Not by a long shot. If anything, the gap between the two franchises has only widened over the last 12 months.
Cincinnati (9-4) can assure itself a third consecutive trip to the playoffs in Sunday night’s rematch. The Steelers (5-8) need to win out just to avoid the club’s first losing season in a decade.
Welcome to the new AFC North, the one where the balance of power is 60 minutes away from sitting well west of Pittsburgh and Baltimore — at a place that has spent most of the last two decades serving as fodder for the rest of the league.
Those days are over. The Bengals, not the Steelers, are the ones with the young and athletic defense. The Bengals, not the Steelers, are the ones with the dynamic running game. The Bengals, not the Steelers, are the ones with the swagger of a champion.
What better chance to show the world just how far they’ve come than on national television?
“There’s going to be more people watching,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “We have to put our best foot forward and be playing our best, show everyone what this team is and what we’re made of.”
The Steelers are trying to do the same. The meaningful portion of their season came to an end in a 34-28 loss to Miami last week that all but mathematically eliminated them from the chase for the AFC’s second wild card berth. They insist, however, they’re not going to play out the string.
“I’m motivated to play as hard as I can,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I’m sure everyone else is.”
Bengals linebacker James Harrison returns to the place where he forged a career as one of the most talented and menacing players in the league.