It's hard to dial up the intensity of the rivalries between AFC North teams, but somehow the stage provided by the NFL playoffs manages to do so. Less than a month ago, the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers met in a game that was important for both teams' postseason hopes and it featured its fair share of bad attitudes.
Now, it only stands to intensify when the two teams meet with seasons on the line.
"We don't like them. They don't like us," Steelers offensive lineman David DeCastro told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in December. "I'm not going to sit here and give you bulletin board material, but that's as simple as it can be."
In the December meeting between the two teams, linebackers Vontaze Burfict and James Harrison met in the middle of the field before the game even began, prompting a pregame shoving match between the two squads.
During the game, Andy Dalton broke his thumb and was replaced by AJ McCarron. The second-year quarterback threw two touchdowns and two interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown by William Gay and celebrated forever, in the 33-20 win for the Steelers.
A little more than a month earlier, it was a tackle by Burfict that ended the season of Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell. After the game, Bell's teammates took exception to Burfict's celebration of the tackle, causing the bad blood between the two teams to continue its downward spiral.
Burfict also was the subject of controversy in December when he delivered a hit low to Ben Roethlisberger, which was one of three infractions that earned fines for the linebacker totaling $69,454. While Burfict apologized for the hit and said he was pushed into the quarterback, Roethlisberger didn't buy it and said that it was an attempt to cause injury.
After splitting the regular season series, the rubber match will decide which team advances to the AFC Divisional round and it gives the Bengals the chance to win a playoff game for the first time since beating the Houston Oilers in January 1991.
Since that win, the Bengals have lost seven consecutive playoff games, including six under head coach Marvin Lewis and a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers 10 years ago that featured a devastating knee injury for Carson Palmer. But for players on the Bengals, few were even around for the team's postseason failures in the last two years, let alone the losses early in the tenure of Lewis.
"I don't think its an issue," Lewis said on Tuesday. "You look around and there's 20 new guys from a year ago, and 40 from two years ago. It's part of it. I don't think there is a ‘here we go again' feeling."
While they haven't been around long enough to feel the wear of postseason losses like the Bengals fans have, the Cincinnati players have played the Steelers enough to know they want to be the ones to boot the AFC North rivals from the playoffs. And the feeling is mutual.
One day after the Steelers beat the Bengals in Week 14, Pittsburgh offensive lineman Marcus Gilbert sent a pair of since-deleted tweets calling out the eventual division champions:
Kickoff is set for Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET and will be televised on CBS. It will be the 93rd meeting of the two franchises, but only the second time ever in the playoffs. The Steelers own a 57-35 record against the Bengals and have wins in 14 of the 20 games over the last 10 years.
With a healthy history of dislike between the rivals, including chippiness in each of the regular season meetings, Saturday promises to be as intense as it gets.