ORLANDO, Fla. -- Bill Cowher remembers the last time he played against Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. How could the Steelers coach forget that one among so many?
Fort Cherry vs. Carlynton in the mid-1970s.
"I think he has more wins than I do," Cowher said yesterday. "He had the last one. The last game was kind of a big game. He was a junior, and I was a senior. We lost, 6-0, on a kickoff return. I was not on the kickoff-coverage team, I do point that out, the only time I was not on the field."
The rivalry between Cowher and Lewis goes back to their midget football days -- "the Little Rangers and the Little Cougars," Lewis recalled -- and they've helped turn it into the most-heated rivalry in the AFC North Division, along the way, each pulling the kind of stunts they might have done in high school.
Bengals-Steelers last year replaced Baltimore Ravens-Steelers as the most anticipated game in the division, and what happened in 2005 should heat it up more. Cincinnati dethroned the Steelers by winning their first division title since 1990, virtually locking it up with an upset victory in Heinz Field.
The Steelers, though, beat the Bengals in Cincinnati in the first round of the playoffs as Kimo von Oelhoffen knocked quarterback Carson Palmer out with a low hit that tore his ACL. Lewis declined to comment on the hit after the game, adding that he was not going "to sit there like a baby and cry like their quarterback, it's ridiculous." That was a shot at Ben Roethlisberger, who called a previous hit on him by Bengals linebacker Odell Thurman a little dirty.
Cowher then was caught by NFL Films performing a version of the Bengals "Who Dey" chant in the locker room after the playoff victory, something he performed again at the Super Bowl parade.
The Bengals-Steelers rivalry has reached a point not seen since Chuck Noll refused to shake Sam Wyche's hand after games.
"I don't know if it can heat up any more," Lewis said yesterday. He kept a straight face when he said Cowher's "Who Dey" performance didn't bother him.
"I never saw it, so I can't comment."
Cowher predicted the Bengals would remember what he did when it's time for the Steelers to play them again.
"Nah," Lewis said. "It's not going to have any effect on who wins or loses the football game -- until somebody hits you in the mouth."
The Bengals got the Steelers' attention with a figurative punch Dec. 4 with a 38-31 victory. It was the last time the Steelers lost a game.
The Steelers kick off the NFL season early with a Sept. 7 game in Heinz Field and, after AFC title game opponent Denver begged out of it, the next logical pairing would have put the AFC North champions against the Super Bowl champions. The prospect that Palmer might not be healthy enough to play by then might have tipped the scales against it.
"I'm glad we didn't open the season in Pittsburgh," Lewis said.
"That's a big game. Why would I want our game in Pittsburgh to be on a Thursday night to open the season? We'll play there when we play there. ... That stadium is going to be ... well, depending on what time it starts, whether or not they'll still be sober. But it's going to be loud, it'll be a loud place."
Despite the Steelers' Super Bowl victory, the oddsmakers have them third among the AFC to win it again behind the Indianapolis Colts (4-1) and New England Patriots (7-1). But then the defending division champions are further back with the Bengals at 18-1 by some and the Steelers hovering around 10-1 odds.
"As it should be," Cowher said of the longer odds on the Steelers to repeat compared to others. "I'm not sure we were the best team last year. I think we played the best at the right time of year, but I think it's a fine line."
Cowher, not surprisingly, picked the Bengals to win the division and Lewis, of course, picked the Steelers.
Baltimore coach Brian Billick picked the Steelers.
"You always follow the money and follow the wins," Billick said.
Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel, whose Browns signed eight free agents this year in a frantic attempt to catch up, gives it to the Steelers by a nose.
"I would say Pittsburgh because they're the Super Bowl champs," Crennel said. "Cincinnati's right there with them because, probably, if they hadn't lost the quarterback it might have been a different game."Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Steelers linebacker Joey Porter fights off a block by the Bengals' Reggie Kelly in last year's regular-season game at Paul Brown Stadium. The rivalry between the two teams should be even more heated this season.
Click photo for larger image.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-3878.