The Bengals have had a hard time improving in the last 20 years, in large part because they have had a hard time beating their divisional rivals. Cincinnati has gone 7-20 against the Steelers during this century and only recently snapped a five-game losing streak to Pittsburgh.
It appears as though the tide may have finally turned.
The Bengals won seven of their final eight games last season, including wins over the Ravens and Steelers. They currently sit as favorites in the AFC North thanks to some excellent drafting over the last few years, while Pittsburgh and Baltimore looked quite awful in Week 1.
If the Bengals are going to get the proverbial monkey off their back, then it's going to have to continue on Monday night against the Steelers in Cincinnati. If they can't win on that stage, then maybe this is a curse that will never end.
Meet the Bengals
Cincinnati drew the HBO Hard Knocks crew to town this year because of a plethora of interesting names and popular faces. Head coach Marvin Lewis is the second-longest tenured coach in the NFL after Bill Belichick, despite his overall losing record. A win on Monday over Pittsburgh, however, would make him 80-81-1 in his career.
The Bengals have struggled on the big stage, going 9-20 all-time on Monday night.
Quarterback Andy Dalton has had his own struggles against the Steelers. In four career games, Dalton has a QB rating of 62.7 and five interceptions against Pittsburgh. Hardly ever struggling is receiver A.J. Green, coming off a nine-catch, 162-yard, two-touchdown performance in a tough 24-21 loss to the Bears in Chicago. Cincinnati held a 21-10 lead in the third quarter but surrendered two touchdowns and was unable to get the ball back during the final six minutes and 38 seconds.
Not usual of a defense led by all-world athlete Geno Atkins. Can the Steelers contain him as well?
Meet the Steelers
Pittsburgh didn't do much well in its shocking 16-9 loss to the Titans at home in Week 1. Without rookie Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers rushed for just 31 yards on Sunday and trailed 16-2 until finally scoring a touchdown in the last two minutes of the game.
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times and threw an interception against a Titans defense that allowed the most points in the NFL last season. Was it a fluke or are the Steelers really bad now?
Pittsburgh has five starters on defense older than 30 and aims to start rookie first-round pick Jarvis Jones at linebacker on Monday. The Steelers could use more youth and a heck of a lot more health, but how long will it take to complete this rebuilding project, if necessary?
Local Takes: Cincinnati
Josh Kirkendall of Cincy Jungle revisits the past three draft classes for the Bengals and where all those players currently stand:
Vontaze Burfict, College Free Agent in '12, LB: Technically not a draft pick, but overall fear for my well-being demanded inclusion. In one year and 18 games played, Burfict has become one of the more reliable defenders who is (if not already) on his way to becoming the emotional defensive leader. Hell, he's already calling the plays in the huddle. If Atkins is the Zeus on Cincinnati's defense, Burfict is the god of war, Aries.
Local Takes: Pittsburgh
Tyler Drenon of Behind the Steel Curtain takes a look at how the Steelers' defense can weather the changing offensive climate of the NFL:
Haslett is clearly not on the same level as Lebeau. And that was just the first 30 minutes of Chip Kelly's NFL career. As time and film accumulate, preparation will be more of an ongoing and delineated process. But that doesn't necessarily mean it'll be easy to snuff out. Though, if you had to pick one guy to go to task with it -- again, it'd be Dick Lebeau.
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The obvious answer is that the Bengals are the better football team and are playing at home, but playing against Pittsburgh has never been "obvious" for Cincinnati. At least, not in a good way.
Even as they've been improving, the Bengals have averaged only 12.2 points per game against the Steelers in their last five contests. The most they could muster in any of those games was 17 points. Another point against the Bengals is that this is their big chance to beat Pittsburgh in front of millions of people on Monday night and prove that they are a good choice as AFC Super Bowl favorites, but will they choke when the spotlight hits? Are the Steelers in their heads too much? Or is it going to come down to talent and where the game is being held?
I would have to go with the latter.
Bengals 24, Steelers 17
The Bengals are 6.5-point favorites with an over/under on the game set at 40, according to the website OddsShark.com.
Things don't get any easier next week in a possible Super Bowl preview, as the Green Bay Packers visit Cincinnati for a huge inter-conference matchup.
The Steelers, possibly looking to avoid an 0-3 start, return home to take on the tough Chicago Bears.