Steelers rookie safety Sean Davis has heard about the physical brand of football played in the AFC North. The second-round draft pick out of Maryland knows its reputation as a competitive division with hostile environments and big rivalries. But one division foe in particular stood out on Davis’ radar during his first months in Pittsburgh.
“I heard that we [are] not supposed to like the Ravens, that we hate the Ravens,” he said during OTAs in June. “The team didn’t really say nothing, but I heard through the fans that we don’t like the Ravens.”
The Ravens are accepted as the Steelers’ traditional rivals, but the on-field performance and off-the-field tension with the Bengals make for a contentious rivalry with Cincinnati as well.
“The Ravens are absolutely our rivals, [it’s] always crazy when we play them,” wide receiver Markus Wheaton said. “But lately us and the Bengals have been fighting.”
When asked to identify the Steelers’ biggest division rival, there was far from a consensus among the team’s players, which is fitting of the competitive balance of the AFC North. Since the NFL’s divisional realignment in 2002, only two teams have won back-to-back AFC North titles, the Steelers (2007-08) and Ravens (2011-12). The Steelers have won six AFC North titles, while the Ravens and Bengals have won four apiece. The Cleveland Browns are still searching for their first AFC North title. The division has sent 25 teams to the playoffs in its 14 seasons of existence, including three teams in both the 2011-12 and 2014-15 seasons.
“It’s always been us three fighting for it,” said defensive end and 2015 team captain Cam Heyward.
Heyward didn’t give a definitive answer regarding the Steelers’ biggest rival. Neither did wide receiver Sammie Coates, guard Ramon Foster or quarterback Bruce Gradkowski.
“It’s hard to say one team sticks out between Baltimore and Cincinnati,” Heyward said.
“I think it’s both,” Coates added. “You got to beat both of them. That’s two teams you want to beat.”
But that may not have always been the case, as the Bengals’ profile has risen in recent years, creating a three-headed monster atop the AFC North.
“It was initially us and the Ravens, but times have changed,” Foster said. “Everybody knows the Cincy rivalry has turned into a different animal, and it’ll be much anticipated this year.”
This summer, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell accused the Bengals of intentionally trying to injure him last season, then celebrating when he injured his knee.
The running back’s season ended Nov. 1 at Heinz Field, forcing him to have surgery on the MCL and PCL in his right knee.
“Obviously, it looked like they were happy about it,” he said, referencing Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict’s injury-inducing hit. “I don’t think it was just him, I feel like the whole team was really out there trying to twist my ankles and do little dirty stuff in between the piles.”
The Steelers ended the Bengals’ season in the wild-card round of the playoffs in a game that included multiple Steelers assistant coaches involved in scuffles with Bengals players, Bengals fans throwing trash at Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as he was being carted off the field and a head-hunting hit from Burfict on wide receiver Antonio Brown.
“It’s been messy,” Wheaton said.
Cincinnati has won the division in two of the past three seasons — a sharp contrast from its two division titles in the previous 22 seasons — and Foster attributes the rise to the Bengals’ mindset and quarterback.
“Now they’ve always had the players, they’ve had high-round picks and stuff like that, but having a quarterback,” he said. “Andy Dalton is a guy that can manage the game and win games for them and that’s a big component of it. They have receivers, [their] defense has always been nice and now they’re pulling together a mindset. I think [that] is the biggest difference.”
Since the Bengals’ four-win season in 2010, which led to them drafting Dalton 35th overall in 2011, Cincinnati has paced the division with 52 regular-season wins, followed by the Steelers (49), Baltimore (45) and Cleveland (23).
“Cincy is always, now, a good team,” Foster said. “Them being in it each and every year now has definitely made it a tougher [division], but that’s good. Everybody’s pulling their own. You have some savvy franchises and we’re one of them and [we’re] trying to take the North every year.
“The North, I think, is the toughest division in football right now.”
Given the competitive stakes, Heyward spoke with a focus on what happens on the field, rather than on last season’s sideline scuffles or after-the-whistle transgressions in games against the Bengals.
“At the end of the day, we just want to win,” he said. “All that petty stuff goes out the window. We’ve had bigger games than that. When we play Baltimore, it’s a night game. You know what’s up.”
The 6-foot-5, 295-pound Heyward spent four seasons in Columbus, Ohio, while playing for Ohio State but denied ever viewing NFL rivalries from the Cincinnati perspective, instead bringing the conversation back to the Ravens.
“Well this isn’t a slight at Cincinnati, but … all I remember is Pittsburgh-Baltimore,” he said. “Those teams, that was the biggest rivalry and continues to be one of the biggest rivalries. That’s why it’s the Thanksgiving game [this season].”
Both the Bengals and Ravens have a strong case to be made as the Steelers’ main rival. The roots of the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry may be longer and deeper, but there has also been a recent infusion of bad blood between the pro football teams and fan bases of Western Pennsylvania and Southwestern Ohio.
But that might be the essence of the AFC North, which in the past eight seasons has been represented in four AFC championship games and three Super Bowls — with two Super Bowl victories.
“It’s always at least two [AFC North teams] in the playoffs,” Heyward said. “We beat up on each other, and I think it prepares us for when we are in the playoffs.
“You just don’t know what to expect in our division because no one’s won it [three] years in a row. We’re here to take it back.”
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