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Bengals vs. Steelers: Showdown for AFC North Title Revives Rivalry

The rivalry between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals hasn’t always burned with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns.

Unlike the feud between the Steelers and Ravens, which is calibrated almost point for point, the balance of power between the Steelers and Bengals often has leaned Pittsburgh’s way, so the matchups haven’t always been marquee material.

This time, it’s different.

Sunday’s game between the Bengals (10-4-1) and Steelers (10-5) at Heinz Field decides the AFC North, and NBC made it a prime-time affair. These teams haven’t played for this many marbles since their 2005 wild-card game.

So bitter were the relations between the Bengals and Steelers back then that an anti-Bengals YouTube video was made. Posted by someone who went by the handle “meanjoecoop,” it was a spoof of the “WKRP in Cincinnati” theme song. Made by an entity known as Hell in a Handbasket Productions, the video correctly predicted a Steelers win in that playoff game and took several shots at the Bengals.

The video is harder to find in cyberspace these days, but I’ve always dug it up whenever the Steelers play the Bengals.

One of the video’s still images shows a swarm of Steelers defensive players, including Deshea Townsend, Bryant McFadden and Larry Foote, running off the field with their fists in the air apparently celebrating a big defensive stop.

When I watched the video in the days leading up to the Steelers’ Week 14 game in Cincinnati this season, that picture made me feel a little nostalgic. Days earlier, the Saints came marching into Heinz Field and plundered the Steelers defense for 35 points. I thought about how long it had been since the Steelers defense could celebrate any play that wildly.

Even after the Steelers beat the Bengals and then the Falcons, I was resigned to the understanding that an impenetrable defense was a thing of the past in Pittsburgh, and that was OK. The Steelers have the second-best offense in the NFL. They’ll go as far as Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell take them.

But it was the defense that slammed the door on the Chiefs and locked up a playoff spot for the Steelers last week, and it provided Steelers fans with a snapshot just like the one in that YouTube video.

Lawrence Timmons stuffed Jamaal Charles on fourth-and-1 from the Steelers’ 12-yard line with 27 seconds left in the first half.

And there it was, a flock of black jerseys and happily raised fists triumphantly running from the scene.

Maybe it shouldn’t be all that surprising that the Steelers defense reached back into the past for a moment. After all, James Harrison was in on that tackle.

The 36-year-old Harrison officially announced his retirement before the season, but was called back onto the stage when Jarvis Jones went down and has played a nice encore tune this season.

Harrison and fellow 36-year-old Brett Keisel have given this season a get-the-band-back-together kind of feel. Even though a torn triceps has sidelined Keisel, he helped get the Steelers to the playoffs.

Troy Polamalu is having a hard time staying on the field and is aging before our eyes when he is on the field, but he’s still three years younger than Harrison and Keisel. Would just one more high-flying, lock-flowing pick-six at a key point in a playoff game be too much to ask?

Even if Polamalu continues to look more and more like a dinosaur as he roams the field, it’s OK because the guys on the south side of 30 are starting to contribute.

Cameron Heyward is good for at least one impact play per game. Rookie Stephon Tuitt forced a fumble and had a sack against the Chiefs. They could form nice playmaking bookends on the defensive line. Timmons earned long overdue Pro Bowl recognition for the first time in his career. His fourth-and-1 tackle was one of a season-high 13 on Sunday.

The Steelers have allowed teams to run for more than 100 yards just twice in the last eight weeks. They’ve won all six games in which they’ve allowed less than 100 yards on the ground during that stretch. The improved front seven has even made Mike Mitchell look like less of a free agent boondoggle.

Mitchell stopped De’Anthony Thomas a yard short of the sticks to set up that fourth-and-1 stop. He also made two touchdown-saving tackles in Atlanta. Without Mitchell, the Steelers probably would have lost to the Falcons and might have been in a do-or-die situation Sunday night.

Instead of do-or-die, it’s do-or-hit-the-road. The Bengals and Steelers are battling for the No. 3 seed. The Bengals could even get the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye if they win and the Raiders win at Denver.

With the No. 3 seed comes a home game next week against the survivor of the Chargers-Ravens-Chiefs-Texans skirmish for the final playoff spot. That wouldn’t exactly be a picnic. Teams that have to fight for a playoff spot can be dangerous once they’re in. But hosting one of those teams beats facing Andrew Luck and the Colts in Indianapolis.

The No. 3 seed also puts off a possible encounter at New England until the AFC championship game.

Also at stake for the Steelers Sunday night is a chance to imitate the 2005 team by winning their last four games and finishing 11-5. No Steelers team has won its last four since ’05.

This defense is nothing like the brick wall the Steelers put out there in 2005, but it’s better than the one that the Saints turned to rubble on the last day of November.

And maybe it will be even better in January than it’s been in December.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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