The Celtics play the Lakers for the NBA title like they did two years ago, two decades ago and two generations ago and now everybody is listing their favorite sports rivalries.
(It seems like Phil Jackson has always been the annoying villain for a middle-aged Celtics fan. If you grew up within the length of Jackson’s beard from the Boston Garden in the early ‘70s, he was the Knicks’ counter-culture seventh man who would beat you with an evil brew of cunning and hacking. So what is different now as he whines about Kevin Garnett playing the kind of physical defense that he got away with hacking John Havlicek?)
The elements for a great rivalry must be this: Story, back story, compelling characters, intensity, and passion with lasting memorable results translating in championships, memories, or both.
The Bengals’ five best rivalries:
1. BROWNS: Which ones? The ones from 1968-95?
Or 1999 to now?
It has to be both. No other teams in sports play a game like this. They were both founded by the same man. One team bears his name (Cleveland) and the other plays in his stadium (Cincinnati) and they are in the same state. That trumps anything the Steelers throw at the rivalry.
But there’s more. When Baltimore went looking to lure a team to its city, the Bengals took the first visit but the Browns took the deal first. The Steelers can’t top that story.
Never mind that a Bengals-Browns game last meant something for both in December in the Reagan Administration.
But as late as 2007 the 5-9 Bengals knocked the 9-5 Browns out of the playoffs in the next to last game of the season. As late as 2003, the 4-11 Browns knocked the 8-7 Bengals out of the playoffs in the season’s last game. The Browns’ 51-45 win over the Bengals in the second game of 2007 set the tone for each’s season.
When the Bengals won in OT last year, it prevented the Browns from tying the series at 36. Then when they beat the Browns again later in the season it finished off their first division sweep ever.
There is still plenty of sizzle and now that Mike Holmgren is running the show, they will be playing important games soon enough.
2.STEELERS: Great players, great teams, any era. Ken Anderson vs. Terry Bradshaw, Carson Palmer vs. Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. Isaac Curtis vs. Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, Chad Ochocinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh vs. Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes at wide receiver. Bengals NFL MVP quarterback Boomer Esiason vs. Steelers Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson. Bengals Pro Bowl nose tackle Tim Krumrie vs. Steelers Pro Bowl center Dermontti Dawson.
The 12-2 Steelers edging the 11-3 Bengals before winning the Super Bowl in 1975. The Steelers smashmouthing to a 7-3 win at Riverfront in 1976 to gain the AFC Central title when both finished 10-4. The Bengals winning the AFC North in 2005 with a 38-31 win at Pittsburgh before the Steelers, on their way to the Super Bowl title, came back 34 days later in Cincinnati to win a playoff game that claimed Palmer on the second snap. The Steelers OT win in the 2006 finale at PBS that knocked the Bengals from the playoffs and the Bengals’ punch-in-the-mouth-18-12 victory that literally knocked the stuffing out of the Steelers’ run in 2009 in a game native Pittsburger Marvin Lewis called the most intense he had ever coached.
The Steelers may fuel more passion now in Bengals fans like a bolt of electricity shooting across this past decade. But the Browns rivalry always simmers and stays hot to the touch.
3. RAVENS: Every great rivalry needs a riveting cast of characters. In Bengals-Browns it is Paul Brown and his family vs. the great grassroots fandom he spawned in Cleveland. In Bengals-Steelers it is the great Pro Bowlers on either side. In Bengals-Ravens the central character is Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, architect of the NFL record-setting Ravens defense that won the Super Bowl following the 2000 season.
It also helps to be in the same division. And, the Ravens are really Paul Brown’s first Browns.
While Lewis coordinated that Ravens defense from 1996-2001, the Bengals were 4-8 against them and 0-4 in the Ravens’ new stadium. Since Lewis arrived, the Bengals are 9-5 and 4-3 in Baltimore, including Palmer engineering a 24-point fourth quarter in 2004 for a last-second win and an 80-yard come-from-behind touchdown drive last year that was consummated with 22 seconds left.
In between there have been classic taut battles pitting the high-powered Bengals offense against the top five Ravens defense. Palmer leads Rex Ryan, Ray Lewis and friends, 8-3, in his 11 starts against them.
The Bengals turned the tables when they won their nationally televised opener at PBS in 2007 with a goal-line stand. And last year in Baltimore running back Cedric Benson made sure the Ravens defense wouldn’t repeat its feat under Lewis of going 50 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher. Benson’s 120 yards stopped this streak at 39, making it a doubly satisfying day for Lewis.
Now that’s a rivalry.
4. 49ers: There is always going to be something there since the Bengals lost to them in both of their Super Bowls, both times at the hands of the man that so desperately wanted to succeed Paul Brown in Cincinnati, Bill Walsh.
They play so rarely now that it doesn’t have the heat it had 20 years ago, when the Niners came to town for one last time under Joe Montana to deliver a crushing overtime win during the Bengals’ ’90 playoff run. They’ve played only five times since.
But Montana’s heroics and the franchises’ intermingling DNA are the stuff of great rivalries. The ’90 OT win came on top of Montana’s last-play 25-yard floater to Jerry Rice out-deking rookie cornerback Eric Thomas in the end zone in the 1987 stunner and his 10-yard dart to John Taylor that won the Super Bowl with 34 seconds left in the 1988 season.
Throw in the fact that Walsh tutored Bengals quarterback Kenny Anderson before he threw for 300 yards against him in Super Bowl XVI and that Bengals head coach Sam Wyche mentored Montana before he broke his heart in that last 92-yard drive seven years later and the thing reads more like a Shakespearean tragedy than an NFL Films script.
Hey, the Capulets and the Montagues were a big rivalry in the Verona North Division.
5. PATRIOTS: OK, OK, I’ll get heat for this one. But hear me out.
Any great rivalry has to have some history and these teams have been playing long enough that the Bengals played at Fenway Park and the Boston Patriots played at Nippert Stadium.
They’ve got to be involved in some memorable moments and the Bengals’ 45-7 win over the Patriots in the last game of 1970 ended with Brown getting carried off the Riverfront turf after they became the youngest expansion team ever (three years old) to make the playoffs.
Then 18 years later in Foxboro the Bengals’ stunning 6-0 start came to a grinding halt late in the game when Patriots quarterback Doug Flutie pulled off a quarterback draw on third-and-18.
And every rivalry has to have a few back stories.
In 2001, the last normal Sunday before 9/11, the Jon Kitna era opened in Cincinnati with the new Bengals quarterback besting the Patriots’ Drew Bledsoe on Opening Day, 23-17. Because of a pregame glitch, Paul Brown Stadium public address announcer Tom Kinder didn’t announce the New England starting lineup, so the Patriots ran out as a team.
That began a tradition of being introduced as a unit instead of individuals that the Pats carried to their improbable Super Bowl win in New Orleans over the favored Rams 19 weeks later, where their quarterback was a pretty important individual named Tom Brady.
In 1990, in the wake of the Bengals’ 41-7 dismantling of the Pats that ran their record to 3-0, New England owner Victor Kiam was overheard in the Riverfront visitors locker room insulting Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson. The remark further deepened the club’s sexual harassment scandal and may have helped spawn Wyche’s move the next week in Seattle when he began his crusade against women media in the locker room.
How about a spicy trade for a rivalry?
The Bengals shipped their all-time leading rusher and disgruntler, Corey Dillon, to the Pats before the 2004 season for a second-round pick. When they met on Dec. 12 in Foxboro, Palmer and Brady hooked up in a duel while Dillon was outrushed by the Bengals’ Rudi Johnson, 89-88.
But after Palmer’s touchdown pass to Chad Johnson cut the lead to 21-14, he left with a sprained knee and 202 yards passing in the middle of the third quarter and the Pats went on to a 35-28 victory and another Super Bowl title even though the 478 yards they allowed the Bengals were the most they gave up all season.
It has set a tone. Palmer is 0-3 against Brady, his fellow California flinger, since leaving the shootout.
But he gets another shot. Soon.
Yes Virginia, they open another season this year.
Does the visiting team win the Super Bowl again?
Does Palmer finally beat Brady in the building where he almost got him six years ago?
Questions that belong to a pretty good rivalry.
But let’s see what you got.
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