Sunday September 18th, 2016

PITTSBURGH — The Steelers and Bengals play again on Dec. 18. If you were looking for a repeat of last season’s contentious playoff showdown between the two teams, maybe check back then. There was not even anything all that close to going over the line Sunday, when Pittsburgh held off Cincinnati for a rain-soaked 24–16 win.

But that doesn’t mean the rematch will be all puppy dogs and rainbows.

“I know the guys in my locker room, all we can do is keep working hard,” said Cincinnati cornerback Adam Jones. “We’ll see them mother f******s again, I can’t wait to see them again. I take my hat off to Ben [Roethlisberger] and Pittsburgh.”

The reaction was vintage Pacman, yet a long way from Jones’s outburst following Pittsburgh’s dramatic, controversial win in Cincinnati last January. Jones went off on the game’s officials that evening, after the Steelers moved into field goal range on the strength of two 15-yard penalties—one on Vontaze Burfict for a high hit on Antonio Brown, the other on Jones for unsportsmanlike conduct.

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The Bengals’ home fans were borderline riotous as the events unfolded, their team’s locker room charred by raw emotion afterward. This time for Cincinnati, there was disappointment, but little more.

The atmosphere matched what went on during Sunday’s game. All week long this matchup was billed as a slugfest, with talk of the officials being on high alert in hopes of snuffing out any extracurriculars.

Turns out, there was little reason for those concerns.

Burfict’s absence may have lowered the temperature a bit. He remains suspended for another week for the dangerous shot he landed on Brown. “Who knows?” Pittsburgh tight end David Johnson said. “Could be. It could be a guy like that that could pump them up a little more.”

There were a handful of big collisions without him, a couple of them initiated by Pittsburgh cornerback William Gay. Both quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton, had a play after which they needed an extra breath before popping back to their feet. Otherwise? Nada.

No personal fouls. No thrown helmets. No brawls. It was, by these teams’ measures, rather cordial.

“I tried to set a tone early in the game, being physical with hits,” Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell said. “They were trying to be physical. I was proud of both teams how we kept it in between the white and in between the whistles. That was old-school AFC North football.”

At the heart of it were the defenses, particularly Pittsburgh’s. The Steelers shut down Cincinnati’s vaunted run game, holding Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard to a combined 39 yards on 16 carries. They also kept A.J. Green in check, disguising their coverages and throwing a variety of zone looks his way to keep him to two catches and 38 yards.

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The Bengals made a game of it late anyway, despite facing a 24–9 deficit. Dalton found Bernard for a 25-yard catch-and-run touchdown with 3:34 left, and the Bengals were driving for a potential tying score late when rookie receiver Tyler Boyd coughed up a fumble.

There was drama in that moment—if Boyd’s knee wasn’t down before the ball came out, it was very close. The play was ruled a fumble on the field and stood after replay.

“I mean, I knew it was close,” Dalton said. “We thought we were going to get it but I guess that wasn’t enough. I wasn’t paying super close attention to the replay, but what we heard on the sideline was that we were going to be getting it back.”

They didn’t. The Steelers subsequently managed to run out all but eight seconds on the remaining clock.

Pittsburgh’s key plays Sunday came from Sammie Coates, Jessie James and Xavier Grimble. Cincinnati limited DeAngelo Williams to 2.9 yards per carry (94 yards on 32 attempts) and took Antonio Brown mostly out of the plan, as Pittsburgh did with Green.

“How many yards he have?” Jones asked after the game. “How many touchdowns? Looks like we did our job. This morning my wife called me and told, ’Do what you can do and let the Lord handle the rest of it.’ Clearly, I’m content. Whatever y’all want to write, y’all write.”

Let’s try this: The Steelers were happy with the outcome but far from thrilled with their performance. “We got an ugly win,” Roethlisberger said, “but a win in the AFC North is never ugly.”

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Meanwhile, the Bengals were ... nonplussed, perhaps is the right word. Improving to 2–0 by stealing one in Pittsburgh, where they won last season en route to an 8–0 start and AFC North title, would have been a significant early statement. They’re still 1–1 despite a pair of tough road games out of the gate, with four of their next six at home.

When they lost to the Steelers in January, it was the end of the line. Sunday, it was just a small piece of the entire season’s puzzle. And it was treated as such, from the opening kickoff on through a hard-fought but rather mundane afternoon.

“We fell short today, we’re 1–1, that’s where we are,” Cincinnati DT Domata Peko said with a shrug. “We’ve got the Super Bowl champions next, so we’ve got to get ready for them and continue to get better.”

This rivalry is as heated as the NFL has to offer. Or at least, it usually is. Sunday, the hype promising a bloody brouhaha never emerged in reality.

“I mean, it’s kind of early in the season and things haven’t really gotten heated yet,” Johnson said. “The battle for the conference was not on the line, who knows. Today, we were all just out there playing respectful ball.”

Just wait, though. Until, say, Week 15. Burfict should be back in the lineup, the division title and a playoff berth could be up for grabs, and this all should get back to being the hatred-filled Steelers-Bengals showdowns we’ve all come to know.

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