Division warfare

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:59 AM ET

CINCINNATI -- It has all the symptoms of a classic butt-kicking rivalry, save for one.

The teams come from a pair of rust-belt cities whose sports fans love their football. For 36 years, they have been residents of a division defined by tough, physical play.

But a rivalry implies competitiveness and a generation of Southern Ohioans have been raised since the Cincinnati Bengals were anything more than the NFL's kitty litter.

It got so bad that recent "Steeler weeks" -- as they are calling it in Southern Ohio --were defined by thousands of Terrible Towel-waving fans making the five-hour drive from Pittsburgh to storm Paul Brown Stadium.

No need for contrived animosity today, however, as the AFC North foes meet in a watershed game for the Bengals.

The artists formerly known as the Bungles (5-1) are itching to make a statement with a win over the Steelers (3-2).

"This city is going crazy," Bengals receiver Chad Johnson said. "It has been a long time since people have felt this way about our team."

All for good reason. The previous time both teams had winning records prior to a meeting was in 1990.

Since then, the Steelers have had 10 winning seasons, including seven division titles. The Bengals haven't had a winning campaign and finished in the cellar four times.

But in the 38 games since Marvin Lewis took over as head coach in 2003, the Bengals are 21-17. More impressive is their 7-1 run to put today's game in the spotlight.

Lewis was weaned in the division, first as a linebackers' coach with the Steelers, then as defensive co-ordinator for the Ravens. He has brought a similar philosophy to his first head coaching job, emphasizing discipline and physical play.

The Bengals renaissance has come on both sides of the ball. On defence, they have an NFL-best 21 takeaways.

On offence, the dynamic play of quarterback Carson Palmer, the first overall selection in the 2003 draft, is the pinch of glitter in the highlights. The former USC star leads the NFL in touchdown passes (13) and completion percentage (72.6).

"It says a lot about our defence," Palmer said. "When you're playing catchup or playing in continually bad field position, you can't rack up numbers like these."

Today promises to be tougher for the Steelers, who are 4-1 in their five visits to the Bengals' new home. There is more riding on it.

A team that lost but once in 2004 is in danger of slipping to .500. It won't hurt that second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a perfect 8-0 on the road in his career, will return from a one-week injury leave that saw backup Tommy Maddox toss away a win against Jacksonville.

"It's our biggest game of the year," Roethlisberger said. "And we've got to go out and play like it is."


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