Steelers Bengals' rivalry is one-sided, but it has grown closer

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CINCINNATI -- A night of fun among good friends turned ugly and ended in chaos at Station Square's Margarita Mamas when the frivolity suddenly was shattered by the staccato bursts of ...

   
   

You're not going to believe this.

The Who Dey? chant.

Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton picks up the story.

"It was a week or two after the Super Bowl," the big man was saying last week. "I was in Pittsburgh for the Pitt-West Virginia basketball game and then we went to the club. Word got around that we were there. Some of the Steelers also were there. The next thing you know, the D.J. is screaming, 'Who Dey?' and everyone in the place is screaming, 'We Dey!'

"I couldn't take it. I had to leave."

That goes back to the Steelers' 31-17 road victory against the Bengals in the AFC playoffs in January. After the game in the jubilant Steelers' locker room and then again at the team's Super Bowl celebration at Point State Park a few weeks later, Steelers coach Bill Cowher led a "Who Dey?" chant, essentially mocking a Bengals' tradition.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis played a tape of Cowher's rendition for his players Wednesday when they gathered to start preparations for today's game against the Steelers today at Heinz Field. It was a nice motivational tool, but it probably was unnecessary. When the Steelers are the opponent, motivation is the least of the Bengals' problems.

"We all hate Pittsburgh," quarterback Carson Palmer told the Post-Gazette in August.

In that playoff game, on the Bengals' second offensive play, a low hit from Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen shattered Palmer's left knee and, with it, the Bengals' Super Bowl dreams. Almost immediately, von Oelhoffen became known in these parts as Lee Harvey von Oelhoffen. As for Palmer, the injury was the start of a month of agony. He had reconstructive surgery, began a torturous rehab program and -- most painfully -- had to watch Jerome Bettis kiss the Vince Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl XL.

Palmer has been waiting 260 days to get another shot at the Steelers. It's not hard to imagine him scratching the days off on his bedroom wall, much the way a man does as he's waiting to get out of prison. Actually, it seems like everyone in this town has been doing some scratching. A "We Want Pittsburgh!" chant broke out at Paul Brown Stadium last Sunday near the end of the Bengals' win against the Cleveland Browns. And at least a few Bengals fans showed they aren't close to getting over the Palmer injury with their Internet postings after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident in June.

"Irony. They cheap shot their way to the Super Bowl, now karma comes in," one man wrote.

"This is what I've been waiting to see happen to the Steelers," wrote another. "They laughed at us when Carson went down ... "

Said Palmer, "People get into [the games against Pittsburgh] more. Everybody's talking, 'It's Steeler week. It's Steeler week!' I'm not sure in Pittsburgh they're saying, 'It's Bengal week,' but, around here, it means a lot to us."

The Steelers consider the Baltimore Ravens to be bigger rivals.

"Face masks get ripped off. Some people get stepped on. There are a lot of dirty things that go on in that game," Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said. "It's a true dislike."

"Pure hatred," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward has called it.

The Steelers don't get nearly that worked up over the Bengals. They understand Palmer's "hate" thing, dismissing it as mere frustration. They can't even get mad at Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson, a first-class agitator who has made a career of annoying opponents.

A big reason is the Steelers' dominance in the series. They are 21-8 against the Bengals -- or Bungles, as they used to be known in Pittsburgh -- in the Cowher era. They won eight division titles and a Super Bowl during that time. The Bengals, meanwhile, had their first winning record in 15 years last season.

"I'm sure they look at us as a team they beat twice every year," Thornton said.

That doesn't mean there haven't been juicy moments when the teams play. Last season, for instance, the Bengals' "Who Dey?" chant wasn't all that was desecrated. A Terrible Towel or two also were muddied.

After the Steelers ran for 221 yards and crushed the Bengals in Paul Brown Stadium in October, 27-13, in what had been billed as Cincinnati's biggest game in years, Ward said, "We're still the AFC North champions. The champion has to go through Pittsburgh."

Ouch.

After the Bengals got even by winning at Heinz Field in December, 38-31, and putting the Steelers' playoff hopes in danger, Johnson said, "It's time for a change. It's like going from black and white TV to a color TV. It was Pittsburgh; it's Cincinnati now, and it probably will be that way for a while."

Ouch again.

Then, there was that playoff game.

Bengals fans' worst fears were realized -- and not just because Palmer went down. They had openly rooted for their team to play the Jacksonville Jaguars in their first playoff game since George Bush The First was in the White House. Hardly anyone in town wanted to see the Steelers in a game that meant everything.

"Cincinnati's our home away from home," Ward crowed after the Steelers won, their seventh win in eight games here.

Thornton doesn't need reminded of that or to see Cowher doing the "Who Dey?" to remember how much he hurt that day.

"It was bad because I felt like we had finally gotten over the Steelers' hump," he said. "We thought they were done when we beat them at Heinz Field ...

"I'm sure they were ticked off. I have buddies there" -- he played at West Virginia -- "who told me they didn't like some of the things we said and did after that game."

For sure, the Steelers didn't like that Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh wiped his shoes with a Terrible Towel.

"Yeah, I know," Thornton said with a sigh. "You win a big game and sometimes you say or do things and forget you might have to play that team again."

The Bengals know they can't get total revenge today. "I don't think they'll give us the Vince Lombardi Trophy if we win," Thornton said. But the Bengals do realize they can take early control of the AFC North Division with a win. They would be 3-0, the Steelers 1-2.

"Hopefully, we can do 'Who Dey?' in our locker room after the game," defensive end Bryan Robinson said.

Houshmandzadeh, for one, appears to be thinking a littler bigger. "I don't regret it at all," he said when asked about his Terrible Towel defilement. "I only regret not doing it in the end zone after I scored. I would have done it right there if I had one at the time."

Maybe today.

Maybe today.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.


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