The Cincinnati Bengals have the opportunity to demonstrate a power shift in the AFC North this Monday night when they host the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite losing their season opener, the Bengals’ chances of beating their longtime rivals are the best they have been in a while.
The Pittsburgh Steelers (0-1) are a wounded animal, and are the most vulnerable they have been in over a decade. As if missing the playoffs last year wasn’t enough, in 2013 so far they have suffered injuries to key players. The storied franchise that had experienced a renaissance as of late (three AFC championships and two Super Bowl wins since 2005) lost its home opener for the first time in 11 seasons to the Tennessee Titans, a team that finished 6-10 last year.
In the offseason, the Steelers allowed speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace to sign a $60 million contract with the Miami Dolphins. A few days earlier they cut a former Defensive Player of the Year in linebacker James Harrison in an effort to get under the salary cap. In their opener, they lost Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (knee) and starting linebacker Larry Foote (biceps) to injuries, likely sidelining them for the year.
In their first game this season, they did little to show that they were the same old Steelers and immune to the problems most franchises face when losing key players. Traditionally known for its ability to run the ball, Pittsburgh ran for a mere 31 yards. They also only managed nine points against a Tennessee team that allowed 29.4 points a game last season, worst in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the Bengals (0-1) lost on the road to the Chicago Bears in their season opener. After taking a 21-10 lead in the second half, Cincinnati allowed the Bears to steal a win due to mental errors. But the Bengals are considered to be one of the most talented teams in the league and are expected not only to make the playoffs but to make some noise when they get there. The disparity in talent between the Bengals and the Steelers should have Pittsburgh worried, particularly because of injuries, but it does not.
The Steelers have no reason to believe they cannot win Monday night. Since the 2007 season Pittsburgh is 4-0 against the Bengals in prime time games. They also eliminated Cincinnati in the Wild Card round in 2006 on their way to a Super Bowl Championship.
The Steelers will try not to let last season or the struggles in week one convince them that the Bengals are the better team after years of domination. The Steelers will try to find the strength to reclaim their place atop the AFC North, even if it is just for one game. After all, with all four teams losing last week, the division is wide open.
Cincinnati is still favored in the Monday night showdown. It is hoped that they learned from last week’s loss and will play more disciplined football to complement the flashes of brilliance they put on display. And, though the Steelers held Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker to only 125 yards passing and number one receiver Kenny Britt to only 15 yards receiving, they are unlikely to find similar success in week two.
The Bengals have an offensive arsenal that can put the Steelers in a huge hole early. Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green continue to develop their chemistry, as evidenced by Green’s 162 yard, two touchdown performance last week. Two rookies, tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard, showed a lot of promise and could be more involved. Playing at home and with an opportunity at redemption, look for the Bengals to come out ready.
On defense, Cincinnati’s front line against Pittsburgh’s uncertainty on the offensive line is a matchup the Bengals’ favor. Rookie center Kelvin Beachum will be making his first start against the likes of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins (12.5 sacks in 2012). Also, Harrison should be highly motivated to show his former team that he is still a premier player.
When it comes to these two teams, numbers and hype mean very little. The Steelers, those battle-tested warriors who have managed to defeat the odds numerous times over the years, will try to dishearten a promising Cincinnati squad yet again.