The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers have engaged in a rivalry (if that's the word) that is difficult to label. NFL programming doesn't often recall the many classic affairs in the oft-one-sided series, and few football fans would mention the two teams in the same breath in a countdown of the NFL's best rivalries.
Yet, many heart-stopping finishes and thrilling comebacks have occurred between the Steelers and Bengals in recent seasons.
Likewise, either fan base would quickly point out that there is a passionate anger infused into the two franchises when they match on the gridiron at least twice annually.
For Bengals fans, envy could be the key motivator. Despite their teams' best shots to enter the fray of successful NFL squads, the chronically successful Steelers have been that much better. Pittsburgh pride has seen two recent Lombardi Trophies, while the Bengals have seen only two winning seasons since 1991. Like their own stripes, Bengals seasons have seen the warm, orange glow of success coupled far too often with the blackness of abysmal play.
Conversely, Steelers fans surely cringe with every "who dey?!" that irritatingly chimes from the stands, like attempts to throw salt in wounds even when they don't exist. Those grimaces then turn into hatred when even the bumbling "Bungles" (miss you, Myron!) handed the Men of Steel shocking defeats. Many of those losses have come in dramatic fashion.
Their success rate and accomplishments have been a study of starker contrasts than their uniforms—one jet black with gold stripes and the other resembling the fur coat of a tiger. Despite radically different expectations in recent seasons, the two teams have engaged in a number of classic battles since the 1980s, the last era in which Cincinnati had the better of play.
Since then, the Bengals have been more than willing to dish out lessons in humility, while the Steelers have been eager to impose their winning ways.
This is a countdown of the 10 best games between the squads in the last two decades.
By 2010, Steelers fans had become familiar with the notion of "huge blown leads" in "the Jungle." Two of those remarkable finishes are highlighted later on the list. With meltdown demons frolicking in their heads, Steelers fans looked on in disbelief during Monday Night Football.
Moments before the nervousness, ESPN announcers spoke of the Bengals as an "all potential and no results" franchise. Who could blame them?
They'd fumbled the opening kickoff, which the Steelers converted into a 7-0 lead. While a Hines Ward fumble allowed the Bengals a short touchdown drive, Pittsburgh responded with a 10-0 run to end the first half, leading 20-7.
Then, Antwan Randle El threw a pass to Mike Wallace on a well-executed gadget play to open a 27-7 lead in the fourth quarter. Game over, right?
A touchdown bomb from Carson Palmer to Terrell Owens cut the gap to 27-14, T.O.'s second score of the night. Owens' production was in stark contrast to the complete disappearance of Chad Ochocinco from the offense, whose lone (one!) reception came late in the second half. Conversely, T.O made 10 catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
At times, Owens was the entirety of the Cincinnati offense.
After the score tightened the game, Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception, and the defense committed two personal fouls and a pass interference to set up another Bengals touchdown.
Suddenly, it was 27-21. The Steelers drove, and Jeff Reed came out to ice the game with a 46-yard field goal an a beautiful night. He missed it, and the Bengals suddenly had a chance to pull out a remarkable win. Only one year earlier, Cincinnati trailed 20-9 at home before rallying.
First down after first down, Western Pennsylvania watched in disbelief. Finally, on 4th-and-deep in Steelers territory, James Harrison knocked the ball from the hands of Bengals receiver Jordan Shipley, ending the contest. It was an amazing play by the linebacker on a perfectly thrown pass that Shipley appeared to have in his grasp.
After a year of excitement behind quarterback Tommy Maddox, 2003 was falling apart in Pittsburgh. Turnovers, bad defense, and bad offense culminated in a 4-7 record. Conversely, the surprising Bengals were 6-5 in turnaround fashion.
More surprisingly, the man at the quarterbacking helm was Jon Kitna. With 65 seconds left at Heinz Field, he became Kitna "the Killer."
The struggling Steelers secondary saw two Kitna touchdown passes stake the Bengals to a 14-3 halftime lead. In the second half, the momentum of the game clearly changed.
Playing a brand of football closer to that of their winning seasons of the previous two campaigns, Pittsburgh rallied with a 75-yard drive. Jerome "the Bus" Bettis pounded the football into the endzone on fourth down.
In the fourth quarter, trailing 17-13, Maddox and the offense went to work, but the drive was in danger when Hines Ward injured his back. After taking a knee to the spine, the receiver secured the touchdown to put the Steelers ahead with 1:05 remaining.
After stalling in the second half, the suddenly anemic Bengals offense took the field hoping to get in position to tie the game. Or, so most fans likely thought...
One. Two. Three. Four.
On four plays, the Bengals took the lead with only a few seconds to play. On the fourth play, Jon Kitna hit Matt Schobel from 18 yards out, giving Cincinnati a stunning victory.
Any hope of rebounding was lost for the Steelers, who watched in disbelief as the Bengals improved to 7-5 after falling apart for 29 of 30 minutes in the second half.
The 2005 season was the finest in recent memory for the Bengals. Their young franchise quarterback was rising among the elite in the NFL. Their offense was dangerous, and their defense was making plays. From consecutive 8-8 finishes, the former "Bungles" shattered their image as a pretender with a huge win at Heinz Field.
With Cincinnati leading the AFC North by one game over the Steelers, a home loss for Pittsburgh would all but decide the division. Ultimately, the Steelers turned the ball over four times, while the Bengals avoided giveaways altogether. It was the deciding factor.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for a then career-high 386 yards. He also had three touchdowns, but his three interceptions cost Pittsburgh.
Until this contest, Carson Palmer was winless against Pittsburgh. In the Steel City, he played a perfect road game, completing 22 of 38 passes for three touchdowns.
The teams traded first-half scores, but the Bengals led at halftime following a key interception thrown by Big Ben. After hauling in a 43-yard score earlier, T.J. Houshmandzadeh caught a six-yard touchdown give Cincinnati a 21-14 lead.
Down 24-17, Ben Roethlisberger hit Hines Ward with a laser pass that the receiver slid to catch, tying the score. In a contest that saw the Bengals answering the call all afternoon, Cincy heard the phone ringing again.
Picking up this time was Teb Perry, who returned the football 94 yards on the kickoff, setting up a one-yard touchdown run.
Despite huge offensive numbers, that Cincinnati defense that made plays at opportune moments continued the trend, intercepting Ben Roethlisberger for a third time.
Ultimately, the Bengals took the lead 38-24. The Steelers scored, and even got the ball back, but ran out of time and downs.
The win was seemingly huge for Cincinnati, a potential changing of the guard in the division. With a key road win, the excited Bengals engaged in an unfavorable practice.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh used the Terrible Towel to shine his shoes, and those familiar with the stuff of legend realize this as a costly error. Others can surely recognize the fun of this mystique. In the coming weeks, the two teams would meet again with much more at stake!
In the 1980's, Boomer Esiason, Ickey Woods, and the rest of the popular Bengals of the era mostly had their way with the Steelers. They'd won 15 of 21 games, swept the Steelers five times in a decade, and boasted a six-game series win streak.
Many conference champions remained on the Cincinnati roster in 1991, and many soon-to-be champions were on the final roster of Chuck Noll's illustrious career.
Names like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, and Carnell Lake hold a special place in the hearts of Steelers fans in 2011.
Neil O'Donnell is remembered for another reason, and it is not for his tendency to avoid turnovers, a reality of his playing days with the exception of one career-defining game.
It was O'Donnell's heroics that would bring the Steelers to victory at Riverfront Stadium in 1991.
The Bengals' fall from grace was extreme. They were 1-8 (beating the Browns one week earlier) as they prepared to host the Steelers, who had also shared struggles in the previous two seasons.
In the first quarter, Ickey Woods gave the Bengals a 10-0 lead. Later in the half, a Boomer Esiason touchdown pass extended the lead to 17-6 at halftime.
A fumble return closed the gap to 17-13 in the third quarter, but another Ickey "Shuffle" Woods touchdown in the final quarter gave the Bengals a 24-13 lead. The Steelers offense had done little on the scoreboard all game, but Neil O'Donnell was about to show off the talents that earned him the starting quarterback role on some great Steelers teams.
Three O'Donnell touchdowns in rapid succession covered 35, 12, and 26 yards. The recipients? A who's who list of Steelers fan nostalgia: Ernie Mills, Louis Lipps, and Eric Green.
Well, okay, maybe Green doesn't conjure cozy memories. But for one afternoon, he elicited Steel City bliss. His touchdown catch in overtime completed an 11-point Pittsburgh rally.
In that overtime, Esiason and the Bengals had a shot to make the Steelers' comeback moot, but Greg Lloyd nailed Ickey Woods near midfield, and the runner fumbled. Rod Woodson picked up the ball, and he returned it to the Steelers' 30-yard line.
Instead of depending on Gary Anderson's leg, O'Donnell hit his tight end for the win!
On a day when Boomer completed 32 of 43 passes for 361 yards, it seems as though the Bengals' version of the "Blonde Bomber" had done enough to earn his team's second win of the season. Yet, a young quarterback across the field came of age, and the result was a memorable win in Chuck Noll's last season.
Within yards of a Super Bowl berth, the 1994 Steelers watched the Chargers celebrate at Three Rivers Stadium in the AFC Championship Game.
A season of redemption in 1995 began painfully. While the low point was likely a loss to the expansion Jaguars, many would cite a Sunday Night Football loss (27-9) to Jeff Blake and the Cincinnati Bengals at Three Rivers as the worst team performance.
Needing a spark and requiring soul searching, Bill Cowher asked his 3-4 squad to look at the remaining schedule as a nine-game season.
After pulling out a miracle win in Chicago, complete with an overtime field goal and a fourth-quarter, fourth-down touchdown to tie the game, Pittsburgh had apparently used up its allotment of magic in the Windy City.
As a teenaged Steelers fan at the time, I went with my father (reluctantly) to town, and I turned on the radio on the way home to hear the score. The announcer spoke, "Third quarter. Thity-one to 13. Oh, the agony of playing quarterback!"
Who was winning? And, which quarterback was in agony?
When they returned, the announcer recapped the stats: "Jeff Blake. Three touchdowns."
The domination from earlier in the season in Pittsburgh was continuing.
Trailing at Riverfront Stadium 31-13, it was obvious that the 6-4 Steelers were in trouble. Neil O'Donnell had rallied the Steelers at the same site in the past, but the team only trailed by 11 points in that 1991 affair. Likewise, the Black and Gold trailed 21-3, scored a touchdown in an effort to come back from the deficit, only to fall behind again.
Still, that team also wasn't the soon-to-be AFC Champions! Both the offense and defense stepped up.
After building a methodical lead behind Jeff Blake's three-touchdown passing effort (his second such accomplishment against the '95 Steelers), Bam Morris scored his first of three touchdowns on the contest, cutting the lead.
Afterward, Neil O'Donnell and the offense ended the third quarter with a touchdown to Andre Hastings. With the two-point conversion, the contest suddenly stood at 31-28.
The defense stiffened again, and the Steelers made one of the most memorable plays of their campaign. Neil hit Kordell Stewart over the middle for a 71-yard touchdown. "Slash" was a rising star and great athlete who served multiple roles on the team as quarterback, running back, receiver...and even punter!
After taking the lead on the electrifying bomb, the Steelers offense and defense continued to play at a high level. Two more Bam Morris touchdowns put the stake in the tigers, and the Steelers celebrated a momentous 49-31 victory at Riverfront Stadium.
The team won with 36 unanswered points in the second half! O'Donnell finished 24-of-31 for 377 yards and three touchdowns.
If you can't run on 'em, thrown on 'em! That was the evident gameplan of the Cincinnati Bengals on December 30, 2001.
The Steelers were rebounding from their struggles of the late 90s in masterful fashion. They'd just beaten the Baltimore Ravens at PSINet Stadium to win the AFC North, and most expected them to trounce the 4-10 Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.
When two touchdown passes from Kordell Stewart to Plaxico Burress covered 70 yards, it seemed that the game was simply holding to expected form. Pittsburgh led 14-0.
Then, the opposite of Steelers comebacks in Cincinnati in the previous decade came to fruition.
Bill Cowher had never lost any contest in which Pittsburgh led by 10-plus points at any given time. So when the Steelers took a 10-point lead, the game was seemingly over. Ahead 14-0 and 23-10 in the second half, things looked in line for a predictable finish.
In fact, the Bengals offense hadn't found the endzone in the game, a lone Cincy touchdown coming via defense. Then, Kitna and the aerial assault took effect.
A six-yard touchdown to Ron Dugans closed the gap to 23-17. Afterward, Kitna hit Danny Farmer from 18 yards for the tying tally late. A missed extra point cost the Bengals a win...for the moment.
In overtime, Kitna threw all over the Pittsburgh secondary for a third straight drive, resulting in a 26-23 Bengals win!
The game ranks high for the blueprint it laid for other squads against Pittsburgh's secondary. In 2002, both New England and Oakland took from this game plan, causing the Steelers to start 0-2. Other teams attacked the weakness of the Steelers defense, including Steve McNair as the Titans ousted Pittsburgh from the 2002-03 playoffs the next season.
While not the most efficient effort, Kitna's game showcased the notion that "if you can't run on 'em, throw it." In fact, Kitna threw deep and threw often, completing 35 of 68 passes for 411 yards.
"It's time for a change. It's like going from a black and white TV to a color TV. It was Pittsburgh; it's Cincinnati now, and it'll probably be that way for a while now."—Chad Johnson
The week leading up to the game was rife with emotion. The Steelers were in the playoffs for the umpteenth time in recent seasons, while the upstart Bengals—complete with then stud passer Carson Palmer—were convinced that their AFC North Championship was a sign of a changing of the guard in the division.
While earlier contests in the countdown had amazing last-second finishes, miraculous comebacks, and unpredictable plays, this game largely ended in anticlimactic fashion. Yet, the intensity heading into the lone playoff war waged between the clubs was thick, and no true fan of either team doesn't remember the circumstances surrounding the Steelers' Wild Card win.
Considering the stakes and that both teams were in the midst of success, a game that would otherwise rank lower on the list gets a significant ratings boost!
In a playoff where the Men of Steel would defeat all three top seeds in the AFC, Cincinnati's "Jungle" was the first stop on a championship ride.
On their first play from scrimmage, Carson Palmer hit a deep pass down the right sideline to Chris Henry. It was thrown perfectly, landing right in the breadbasket of his intended receiver. Bengals fans exalted in ecstasy. Those cheers were silenced immediately, however, as Carson writhed in agony half the field away.
The quarterback had torn his ACL when Kim Von Oelhoeffen accidentally rolled into his leg during a pass rush. Paul Brown Stadium shared a stunned silence.
Jon Kitna entered the game, the same quarterback that had sliced and diced the Steelers defense in two comebacks in the previous five seasons. It appeared initially that the playoff contest would serve as an encore. After taking a 10-0 lead and watching it evaporate to 10-7, the Steelers defense committed costly penalties that allowed Cincinnati to score again, extending to 17-7.
However, Ben Roethlisberger and the offense had championship pedigree to prove, and a laser throw to Hines Ward closed the gap to 17-14 at halftime.
Then, as if a reflection of the teams' different paths in the decade beforehand, the Pittsburgh postseason prowess bottled up the Bengals in the second half.
Cincinnati made like the "Bungles" early in the half. After driving again on offense, a high snap on an attempted field goal gave Pittsburgh the ball near midfield. A solid drive ended with a Jerome Bettis five-yard touchdown, a punishing run that showed off his power and shiftiness off-tackle.
To answer the Steelers' first lead of the game, Kitna dropped the ball on a scramble, and Pittsburgh regained possession after a punt. Then, one of the finest plays in Steelers history changed the momentum of the football game for good.
They'd lost their quarterback. They'd lost the lead. They'd made a few mistakes. But, surely the Bengals, filled with ire for the Steelers and ready to validate their AFC North crown, were still determined to come back.
For all of those good intentions, a direct snap to Antwan Randle El taken toward the right sideline resulted in his throwing the ball back across the field laterally to Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben hit Cedric Wilson down the left sideline with a wide open touchdown that let the air out of the Cincinnati balloon.
It was a jaw-dropping gadget play that left fans everywhere speechless.
The rest of the game was a showcase of one team relentlessly keeping the other down. As if highlighting their pasts, the Steelers simply would not allow the Bengals back into the contest. Pittsburgh won 31-17, and many Bengals fans still insist that Palmer's early injury prevented them from moving on to play Denver the next weekend.
The last time Steelers fans had seen Neil O'Donnell was in the aftermath of a three-interception performance against the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX. After taking two years of abuse in New York City, especially behind the lackluster offensive line of the '96 Jets, O'Donnell's journey led from Pittsburgh and down the Ohio River into Cincinnati.
Despite his years of success in the 'Burgh, many Steel City faithful wanted to exact pain on the former Steeler, not only for his poor championship performance but for leaving the city for the almighty dollar after coming so close to glory.
The first half began promisingly. Jerome Bettis scored on a nifty 13-yard touchdown, and the Steelers led 10-0. Despite containing their former quarterback for much of the first half, O'Donnell hit Darnay Scott for a 44-yard scoring strike to tie the game...except that the Bengals missed the extra point, thus trailing 10-9 at halftime.
In the second half, Kordell Stewart and the offense again seized seeming control of the contest. Richard Huntley gave Pittsburgh a 17-9 lead. The Bengals connected on a long field goal to close the gap before Neil O'Donnell hit Darnay Scott for a second touchdown, burning Carnell Lake. Suddenly, the Bengals led 18-17 in the fourth quarter.
After exchanging drives, the Steelers mounted a series of first downs leading to a Norm Johnson field goal and 20-18 lead with two minutes left. Additionally, the ensuing kickoff resulted in bad field position for the Bengals due to penalties.
Stuffed on three consecutive plays, Cincinnati faced 4th-and-12 from their the 5-yard line. Less than one minute remained, and Cincy couldn't stop the clock. Game over, right?
Neil O'Donnell had other thoughts. In a desperate heave, DeWayne Washington had position to make a play on the football downfield...until Carl Pickens snatched possession away from him, giving the Bengals a 50-yard gain deep into Steelers territory.
After a few short gains to get into field goal range, Cincinnati faced a third down with the clock running. To set up a field goal, O'Donnell and the offense lined up to spike the ball...
And HOLY SHADES OF DAN MARINO! O'Donnell faked the spike and sent another lob deep to Carl Pickens.
Again, Washington had position, and Pickens took the football away. TOUCHDOWN!
The Bengals won 25-20. On a day where Kordell Stewart avoided turnovers and also ran for over 100 yards, Neil spoiled the show in Pittsburgh, completing 20 of 25 passes for over 300 yards and three touchdowns.
Another game in Cincinnati and another comeback. What else is new?
In this game more than any other for the Steelers, Pittsburgh left the field wondering, "how?" As the defending AFC Champions, their defense had allowed two fourth-down conversions (one of those a miraculous effort) on a final drive that covered 71 yards.
In a game that could have been 31-3, Cincinnati pulled out the essence of "bending but not breaking" and Carson Palmer was heroic when he had to be! Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger's perfect record in his collegiate state was finally tarnished.
In the first half, the Steelers utterly dominated Cincinnati, owning possession of the football and seemingly moving on offense at will. After a tough 2008 season, the Bengals' psyche was still fragile, and the opportunity to put them away early was not seized, a reality that became bitter for the Steelers to accept after the game. Consider:
- Pittsburgh had the ball inside the 5-yard line twice and had to settle for a field goal both times.
- The Steelers attempted to convert a 4th-and-4 from the Bengals' 35-yard line, only to be stopped, leaving more points on the board.
- The Bengals showed their only signs of life on offense after the missed conversion late in the half, finally getting a first down and ending the half with a field goal.
- The halftime score could have been 20-0 or worse, but Cincinnati trailed 13-3.
On a late afternoon when Cincy's offense was stagnant, Ben Roethlisberger picked up the slack, throwing an interception returned for a touchdown by Jonathan Joseph. Despite a missed extra point, the Bengals suddenly trailed 13-9 despite the merciless beating statistically.
On the ensuing drive, Pittsburgh drove again before Limas Sweed dropped a wide open pass of 30-plus yards and Jeff Reed missed a field goal. Despite a frustrating evening of missed opportunities, the Steelers scored a touchdown late in the third quarter to lead 20-9 on a day of domination.
Good enough, right? Not in the NFL (Nobody Figured League)!
To start the fourth quarter, Cedric Benson scored a critical touchdown to cut the gap to 20-15. After bumbling for 45 minutes, the "Bungles" turned Bengal at the right time. Getting the ball back in the final minutes, Carson Palmer had an inexplicable opportunity to win the game for his football team.
He did just that...with a bit of help!
After converting one first down, the Bengals faced another deep in Steelers territory. A conversion would set up a goal-to-go situation, and a miss on 4th-and-a-long-10 yards would end the game.
Palmer hit fullback Brian Leonard in the flat, and James Farrior dove to tackle Leonard as he approached the sticks. The fullback used his hand to keep balance just long enough to lunge his large frame forward in a diving effort for the first down.
By inches, he got the all so important set of downs the Bengals needed. Or, should I say "down," singular.
On the next play, Carson Palmer hit Andre Caldwell with the game-winning touchdown, and Paul Brown Stadium erupted. For the second straight week, the Steelers lost in unbelievable fashion (one week earlier, the Bears beat Pittsburgh 17-14). Meanwhile, the momentous win catapulted Cincy, who would run off seven wins in eight games and make the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Steelers would ultimately miss the postseason by a single game, leaving them to look back at their giveaway game, Ben Roethlisberger's first NFL loss in his collegiate state of Ohio.
The defending NFL Champion Steelers were going to miss the playoffs, while the defending AFC North Champion Bengals were unable to win the division by the final week of the 2006 season. Unlike Pittsburgh, Cincinnati could salvage a playoff spot with a win over Pittsburgh. They also needed Kansas City to beat Jacksonville.
With the Chiefs thoroughly dispatching the Jaguars, it became plainly evident that the season finale against the 'Burgh was the lone all-or-nothing proposition for the Bengals' dreams of January. Plain and simple.
After winning a Wild Card Playoff contest in January at Paul Brown Stadium, the Steelers hoped to play spoiler to a Bengals team in position to make the postseason for a second straight season.
Let me just say this. Misery loves company. We're looking for company.—Bill Cowher
For coach Bill Cowher, it was his last game as the head man in the Steel City.
In the first half, Carson Palmer, who declared his hatred for Pittsburgh in a summer issue of Sports Illustrated, had no success. The Steelers had a 90-yard drive to take a 7-0 lead. Despite their offensive anemia and stifling defense by Pittsburgh, Cincinnati squeaked in a field goal to end the half down 7-3.
The Steelers ran the ball down the Bengals' throats in the second half, putting themselves in position to take a commanding lead. Like the first half, they were unable to take advantage of dominant play. In a microcosm of the 2006 Steelers, Willie Parker fumbled in Ernest Byner fashion as he was crossing the goal line for another touchdown.
Cincinnati recovered, and a few plays later they scored. Carson Palmer hit Chris Henry on a 66-yard touchdown bomb to give the Bengals a stunning 10-7 lead.
Roethlisberger and the Steelers responded with a drive of their own to reclaim a 14-10 edge, but Carson Palmer continued his fourth quarter from "out of nowhere," completing pass after pass until finally hitting tight end Tony Stewart for the late lead.
The Steelers' two-minute offense drove the field and tied the game. They did it too quickly, as Carson Palmer engineered another masterful drive in setting up the game-winning field goal attempt.
Shayne Graham shanked the 35-yard field goal, sending the game into overtime. A converted attempt would have sent Cincinnati into the playoffs.
Two franchise quarterbacks entered overtime, one of them hoping to see his team play another day. For Palmer and the Bengals, destiny didn't give them another game. In fact, it didn't give Palmer another snap.
Destiny's name was Santonio Holmes, who ended 2006 in a fashion conducive to his toe-tap catch in Super Bowl XLIII months earlierremarkably!
Ben Roethlisberger hit the former Buckeye on a quick slant, and the former Ohioan hero sprinted down the field for the game-winning touchdown.
Bengals fans stood in shocked silence as Bill Cowher ended his illustrious career as a winner and their team's season had come to a sudden end.