Courtesy of MCT
On Sunday night, when the nation’s eyes turn to The Queen City to watch the hometown Bengals take on the Pittsburgh Steelers, a number of Cincinnati faithful will have just one small request: Please don’t embarrass us.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Bengals were 3-1 and tied for first in the AFC North. They quickly then proceeded to deflate their long-suffering fans by losing in convincing fashion to the 1-3 Dolphins and the 0-5 Browns. But displays of ineptitude that pass quietly into a Sunday afternoon are not as painful as public decimation at the hands of rivals.
Since the 2007 season, Cincinnati (3-3) has faced Pittsburgh (2-3) in three primetime games, losing all three by an average of about 26-14. Yet, it’s not just the black and yellow that have tormented Cincinnati.
As of December 18, 2006, the Bengals are 1-8 in evening games. In those contests they were outscored by an average of about 29-13. One of those losses was a 34-0 annihilation by the New York Jets in 2010, a year Cincinnati actually made the playoffs.
Perhaps the pressure of playing in front of the entire country is too much for a team that has yet to get acquainted with success. After all, in the playoffs, the Bengals have been just as disheartening. Since the 2005 season, Cincinnati is 0-3 in the postseason, losing by an average of approximately 29-14.
The drafting and subsequent immediate success of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green offered a gleam of hope for many. Surely a combination like that would be able to reverse the losing mentality that had permeated their locker room like fear in an Ewok village invaded by stormtroopers.
The 2011 regular season did not provide this duo the opportunity to star in any evening football theater. And when they were manhandled by a Houston Texans team spearheaded by a third-string rookie quarterback, Cincinnatians assured themselves they had taken a wrong step in a definite direction.
Then the NFL announced the Bengals would open the 2012 season at Baltimore on Monday Night Football. Finally, the opportunity to showcase the Bengals of new. But the Bengals wasted no time in ridding their fan base of any doubt whatsoever. It would take much more than a couple of hard-working youths to reverse their fortune. By losing 44-13 to the Ravens, the Bengals actually convinced a number of football fans that their success a year earlier was an aberration.
This time around, Cincinnati actually has the better record and should be favored to win. The Steelers have not been themselves this year. Their defense is suffering from crippling injuries. The absence of safety Troy Polamalu in particular has been tolling. A franchise that prides itself on running the football is ranked 31st out of 32 teams in rushing.
Their vaunted defense has surrendered an average of 23 points a game in losing three of its first five games.
The Bengals’ offense poses problems for the Steelers’ defensive backfield. Green has totaled 500 yards and five touchdowns in his last four games and now leads the NFL in receiving. Pittsburgh’s makeshift secondary has not been making plays and has only two interceptions on the year.
Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins is licking his chops as well. The fleet-footed playmaker is an expert at turning short plays into long touchdowns.
Comparatively, in their losses to Denver and Oakland, the Steelers have allowed wide receiver Demaryius Thomas to turn a short slant into a 71-yard touchdown and running back Darren McFadden to break free for a 64-yard run.
On defense, Cincinnati should be able to rattle quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with a pass rush that is second in the NFL with 20 sacks and will not have to concern itself with Pittsburgh’s anemic ground game, which is averaging 3.0 yards a carry and features a lead rusher who has a total of just 127 yards on the year.
And yet, an astute observer of Cincinnati football will confidently assure you that Sunday’s game will more likely than not serve as a bounceback game for the Steelers. The game Pittsburgh looks like Pittsburgh again. The game a running back emerges, Roethlisberger makes all the big plays and the secondary creates turnovers. The Bengals have been generous to struggling teams and players in the past and are unlikely to make an exception in a primetime game with millions watching. So when the city of Cincinnati is charged with the duty of entertaining an entire nation, all their disappointed fans ask is that their team keep it close.