Bengals off to hot start, but Steelers game looms large

CINCINNATI – There’s a set of televisions on the wall between the tunnel at Paul Brown Stadium and the Bengals’ locker room.

The televisions were airing the conclusion of the Browns-Ravens game on Sunday afternoon just minutes after the Bengals came back to win 27-17 against the Dolphins. A number of players came through the tunnel and stopped to watch the game before Bengals coach Marvin Lewis hurried them along.

“Let’s go, guys. We’re what counts. We’re what counts,” he said.

It’s true that the Bengals don’t need to worry about what their division opponents are doing right now, when they sit alone on top of the AFC North with a 4-1 record. But it’s also true that everything changes this week, when the Steelers come to town.

“We handle things by blocking out all of the noise and continuing to grind,” Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green said. “Nobody gave us a chance when the season started. Why do they believe in us now? We’re going to continue to keep playing and keep playing for each other.”

The Bengals have checked almost every box in this young season. They’ve won games by virtue of their defense when the offense struggled, and their offense has had unprecedented success in games when the defense struggled. They have a knack for forcing turnovers, and they’ve been able to put teams away late when it was needed most.

“This team is different,” Green said.

But the one box the Bengals have to check for themselves is still open. If they want to put the past behind them and get back to the playoffs this season, they need to move the Steelers out of the way first.

Green said he believes it’s just another game, and it’s likely that most players will say that this week. But it’s hard to believe that’s actually true.

Steelers week has always been different in Cincinnati, as evidenced by both teams' chirping at each other through social media, midgame skirmishes or violent hits that have knocked players on both sides out of the game.

It was the Steelers who knocked the Bengals out of the playoffs in the 2015 wild-card round, and Cincinnati hasn't beaten Pittsburgh in four tries since that night. This team certainly seems to have its best chance in years to change that.

The Bengals are 8-24, including playoffs, against Pittsburgh in the Marvin Lewis era, and they have not beaten the Steelers in their past six tries. The Bengals jumped to a 17-point lead in their previous meeting before the Steelers came back to win 23-20.

The players might not admit it publicly, but they know how much this one means. The win against the Dolphins proved that the Bengals can erase deficits and come up with game-changing plays to come out on top. A win against the Steelers would not only give them solid footing in the AFC North and a 5-1 record before they face the Chiefs on the road but also symbolize something bigger.

“This is a divisional game, and everyone knows what that’s about, but we’ve just got to go out there and play hard,” running back Joe Mixon said.

A win next week would say that whatever happened in the past isn’t keeping the Bengals down this time. It would prove that the team is full of enough confidence that it truly sees Pittsburgh as just one more game.

“We don’t make any game bigger than another. We’re 4-1, and we’re happy,” Green said.

There’s no doubt that the Bengals’ 3-15 record against Pittsburgh since Andy Dalton and Green were drafted in 2011 has weighed on the players and coaching staff. It has likely been difficult to treat the Steelers as any other team when that clearly hasn’t been the case.

But this team might be different.

The Bengals have one of the youngest rosters in the league, and those players don’t have the history of the series weighing on them. Rookies such as Sam Hubbard and Jessie Bates, who had timely plays against the Dolphins, have never played in this series. Second-year players such as Mixon, John Ross and Carl Lawson have limited history against Pittsburgh.

The players clearly believe in themselves. A win over the Steelers would have everyone believing in them.

“There’s more than one word to describe the feeling we have,” Bates said. “If we continue to control the things we can, we’ll be just fine ...

“Once you keep winning, it’s a snowball effect with the energy in the locker room. Whatever we are at home or on the road, if we continue to stay poised, we’ll be fine.”