CINCINNATI -- It's a battle of good vs. evil, the good guys against the bad guys or whatever other analogy you want to draw.
And depending on which side of the Steelers-Bengals rivalry you sit on determines which is which.
If you're a Steelers' fan, you think Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict is the devil incarnate. He has, after all, been suspended or fined by the NFL 11 (!) times for various incidents, some involving the Steelers. His most recent was a four-game suspension for violation of the league's substance abuse policy for PED usage.
Burfict blamed the positive test, in part, on a concussion he suffered at the hands of Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in their most recent meeting last December.
Of course, Bengals fans will point to that hit, for which Smith-Schuster was suspended for a game, as the most recent example of of the big, bad bully Steelers taking cheap shots at Cincinnati players.
No matter the side of the fence on which you fall, many felt that Dec. 4 meeting last season, won by the Steelers, 23-20, on a last-second Chris Boswell field goal, might have been the game in which the rivalry overstepped its bounds.
The two teams will resume their rivalry Sunday when the Steelers (2-2-1) return to Paul Brown Stadium to face the division-leading Bengals (4-1) in a game the visitors might need to win if they want to have a shot at the AFC North championship this season.
With a loss and tie in the division already, the Steelers can ill afford to fall to 0-2-1 in AFC North games, even this early. That's especially true with this game kicking off a three-game swing against AFC North teams sandwiched around the team's bye. With five of their six AFC North games in the first nine weeks, the Steelers won't have many head-t0-head games in which to make up ground down the stretch.
"That is kind of weird, especially the way tiebreakers work and down the stretch," David DeCastro said. "I guess the computers that come up with the schedules have something else in mind this year."
Perhaps the NFL schedule makers just didn't want a repeat of last season, when the Steelers and Bengals met twice in a six-week period, culminating with that game at Paul Brown Stadium.
The tone was set when Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier was lost in the first quarter to a back injury that left him with no feeling in his legs. It escalated from there, with nine major penalties assessed on the two teams in a game that featured 20 combined infractions.
For Cincinnati, Geno Atkins drew a roughing the passer penalty; A.J. Green and Clayton Fejedelem got 15-yard facemask penalties; and George Iloka got an unnecessary roughness penalty for hitting Antonio Brown in the head on a TD catch. Iloka also got a one-game suspension that was reduced to a fine.
Le'Veon Bell and Brian Allen were penalized for unnecessary roughness for the Steelers. Smith-Schuster got a 15-yard penalty for a blindside hit on Burfict -- with a second flag being thrown for standing over the prone linebacker.
[caption id="attachment_588047" align="aligncenter" width="640"] JuJu Smith-Schuster walks away after laying out the Bengals' Vontaze Burfict. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
"It’s one of those games that can get chippy at times," Ben Roethlisberger conceded. "You hope it doesn’t. You hope it’s just a hard-fought football game but sometimes it gets a little chippy. So, we’ll do our best to put all that in the past behind us and play like it’s a normal football game."
The Bengals have said they don't want things to get that way this time around.
"We can't have any dumb penalties, any outbursts, anything like that," Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. "We've got to stay focused. It's Pittsburgh week. Everybody's going to be hyped up, ramped up."
The bottom line is that this game is too meaningful for the silliness to occur. For the Steelers, they need a win before heading into their bye week to help dig themselves out of the early hole they put themselves in.
For the Bengals, a win over the Steelers -- who have beaten them in 17 of 20 games at Paul Brown Stadium -- would be an exorcism of sorts. It also would help validate the team's 4-1 start.
"(It's a) big game for us as it always is," Mike Tomlin said. "Divisional play, have a unique relationship, been in some highly contested football games with these guys in recent times. There are a hot football team. They are 4-1. They found ways to win close games and that is what good teams do and you have to respect that."
Even if they don't necessarily like each other.
• Who: Steelers (2-2-1) at Bengals (4-1)
• When: 1:02 p.m.
• Where: Paul Brown Stadium
• TV: KDKA, CBS (national)
• Radio: 102.5 WDVE, ESPN Pittsburgh
• Satellite: SiriusXM 227 (Internet 826)
• Forecast: 61 degrees, 60% chance rain
• Lots open: 9 a.m.
• Will call open: 11 a.m.
• Gates open: 11 a.m.
• Boxscore: NFL Game Center
• Media notes: Steelers | Bengals
THE INJURY REPORT
Steelers: S Morgan Burnett (groin, out), WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (ankle, out), LB L.J. Fort (ankle, doubtful)
Bengals: CB William Jackson (knee, questionable), OT Cedric Ogbuehi (wrist, questionable), WR John Ross (groin, questionable), RB Giovanni Bernard (knee, out), TE Tyler Kroft (foot, out), C Billy Price (foot, out)
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