The guard changes slowly in the AFC North, when it changes at all. It shifts almost imperceptibly, from Pittsburgh to Baltimore and back, avoiding Cincinnati entirely. The Bengals nag at the edges, sometimes good enough to play with the big kids, most of the time not.
Is that changing?
The young Bengals aren't weighted with bad memories. They lack doubt. They have the talent to go helmet to helmet with the Steelers and the Ravens. With their youth comes possibility and, more important, good health. Infirm Pittsburgh and aging Baltimore limp to the finish line, wondering if they have enough just to hang on. The Bengals sprint. They've won six of seven.
It's like watching ships pass in the night. I wrote that last year, and people laughed. Still laughing?
The Bengals weren't better than the Steelers Sunday. They just lasted a little longer and winced a little less. They overcame some questionable coaching decisions. They cashed in on a curiously bad day by Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers quarterback used to be the best closer in the game. He has lost his fastball.
The Bengals are in the playoffs, for the second year in a row. The Steelers are out of the playoffs, beaten at home in a must-win game by the kid whose lunch money they used to steal. Not only did the Bengals win, 13-10, they beat the Steelers in a way that revealed the sort of championship character the Steelers used to assume.
"It's hard to beat a man that never quits" was defensive end Michael Johnson's explanation. It will suffice.
The Bengals weren't good on offense. In fact, they were pathetic: No offensive touchdowns, 14 rushing yards, Andy Dalton's quarterback rating a laughable 58.8. It took the Bengals more than 30 minutes just to advance inside the Steelers 20. But when Dalton had to be good, he was: His 21-yard floater down the right sideline to A.J. Green, over one Steelers defender and in front of another, was delivered with a surgeon's touch.
That resulted in the field goal that won the game, and kept the Bengals' ship sailing toward sunrise. The Steelers seek the sunset and a long winter's nap.
"A big win for the city" was Marvin Lewis' appraisal. Then he addressed what he saw as a civic fear/loathing/grudging respect for all things Steelers. Cincinnatians, Lewis said, "think there's some sort of complex. There's no complex."
Ah, but there has been. It has never been a big deal for the Steelers to beat the Bengals. The Ravens were always their measuring stick. Conversely, Steelers Week! always has been an urgent time around here, no more so than this season. This wasn't just the biggest win of the season. It was the sort of win that defines players and coaches.
Had Shaun Suisham's 53-yard field goal try split the uprights with 1:51 left and won the game for the Steelers, we'd be dissecting the Bengals right now, wondering again when or if they'd ever come of age. As it was, Roethlisberger threw an inexplicably bad pass a minute later. Bengals safety Reggie Nelson gathered in the overthrow. Josh Brown, a Bengal all of three weeks, banged home the 43-yard winner. And now, everything looks different.
"We want the game on the defense's back," said defensive tackle Geno Atkins, whose back is as broad as a buffet table. "We knew it was going to come down to who was the best defense."
Is this a changing of the guard in the North? The start of something big?
Willie Anderson called these events "manhood games." You discover a little about yourself as a football player, when you play the Ravens and the Steelers. If that's the case, the Bengals found a lot to like about themselves Sunday. They produced an effort worthy of the circumstances. They won an entirely brute-iful game.
Paul Daugherty is a columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer.