Of all their achievements last year, nothing spoke so directly to the Bengals' progress as the derision coming their way from the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team that lived largest off Cincinnati's many years of starvation. On one star-crossed day last December, the Bengals beat the Steelers in the Steel City and stole the AFC North Championship. No matter what happened next, the Steelers never seemed to get over it.
As the euphoria faded from their improbable run of eight straight wins after that loss to the Bengals, taking them all them all the way through the Super Bowl championship, the Steelers couldn't shake this notion that they were bettered by the Bengals. All the way to early last week, the Bengals were the last team to beat them.
Today the Bengals again are the last team to beat the Steelers, and they did it again in Pittsburgh on a day when they didn't play their best game. But the Bengals didn't need their best game on Sept. 24, because the Bengals are a better team now, better than the Steelers and maybe better than the Bengals have ever been.
As they disposed of Pittsburgh and Kansas City on the road to building their 3-0 start, the Bengals have turned the challenge of a difficult schedule into a test for the rest of the NFL. In the course of four Sundays beginning on Sept. 24 and ending on Oct.
15, the Bengals play Pittsburgh, New England and Tampa Bay, who have won the past five Super Bowls. But none of those teams is the same, and neither are the Bengals.
Because of their schedule, the Bengals needed to be better than last year just to be as good, and so far they've turned out to be better enough to be really better. They're so much better that they could go to the home of the defending Super Bowl champions, lose out by every important statistical measure and still win the game.
The Steelers out-gained the Bengals 365-246 and out-rushed them 170-87. The Bengals were penalized more times for more yardage, they converted fewer third downs at a lower percentage and they held the ball for nearly eight minutes less over the course of the game.
The Bengals made three turnovers. They made tactical mistakes. Three times in the third quarter, driving into the wind, they faced third-and-three and tried to pass every time. On those plays, they took one sack, threw one incompletion and threw one interception.
But they also intercepted two of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's passes in the end zone, the first time Big Ben ever threw a pick from the red zone during a regular season game. They recovered one fumble by the Pittsburgh offense in Pittsburgh territory and turned it into a touchdown on the very next play. They recovered a Pittsburgh punt return fumble deep in Pittsburgh territory and turned it into a touchdown on the very next play.
Carson Palmer, the quarterback whose leg Pittsburgh snapped last January, gamely took six sacks from a Pittsburgh defense foaming at the mouth. When the Steelers didn't sack Palmer, they smacked him anyway. He fumbled three times. But he also completed 18 of 26 passes, four for touchdowns, all but ignoring lead receiver Chad Johnson.
Bengals rushing ace Rudi Johnson ran for only 47 yards, and his Pittsburgh counterpart, Willie Parker, topped him with 133. But the Bengals can win that game now because they've added the feature that really isn't a feature of football so much as a feature of winning: They know how to win.
A difference is somewhere to be found between beating teams and winning games. Bengals players alluded to it, without saying so, in their post-game remarks Sunday.
The longtime offensive tackle, Willie Anderson, mentioned in his remarks to reporters that the Bengals didn't let the game get too big. Palmer mentioned on two national television interviews that it wasn't about revenge, not even after he talked during the offseason about his hostility concerning the Steelers. In both interviews, his tone and demeanor were calm and measured.
The Bengals have come to understand a constructive truism about revenge: It's best served cold.
Undoubtedly, the Bengals took great satisfaction in beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh and basked in the victory because it was the Steelers -- but that's not what it's about. If the Bengals had run out to beat the Steelers, they would have lost because the Steelers beat them. Because the Bengals played against the game, rather than the Steelers, they won.
As the days of consistent defeat recede into a foggy past, we're still close enough to remember how the Bengals used to lose. Most often, the other team beat the Bengals and, when it didn't, the Bengals just went ahead and lost the game anyway.
Last year, the Bengals took a step in which they could beat most of the teams they played, but the Bengals didn't win unless they beat the teams they played. A couple times every year, though, especially in the NFL, a football team needs to win that game during which it's outplayed by the opposition, especially on the way to the championship, where opponents are more able to do it.
At last, the Bengals can win that game. They've made the kind of improvement that never shows up in the box score and only shows up in the final score. The Bengals made opportunities and made them count.
More than they beat the Steelers, they won a game, which bodes well for a coming slate of games that don't involve the Steelers. And it bodes poorly for teams who have to play the Bengals.