Before the Cincinnati Bengals' first game of the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton stood at the front of the room at the Westin hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. Since Hilton played the first four seasons of his NFL career with the Steelers, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor had Hilton give the pregame speech before the Bengals first matchup of the year against their biggest rival.
Hilton, who had a front row seat for the Bengals' downfall in the late 2010s, told the rest of the team about the magnitude of the Bengals' rivalry with Pittsburgh. He told the Bengals players about how the Steelers “stabbed him in the back” when they didn’t re-sign him at the end of the 2020 season.
Then Hilton told the rest of the Bengals roster that the best way for the team to prove that it could compete in 2021 would be to sweep Cincinnati’s biggest rival. Two months later, the Bengals finished the sweep of the season series with a 41-10 win over the Steelers on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals have now won three straight games against Pittsburgh for the first time since 1990, and they have a single-season series sweep for the first time since 2009.
"Beating those guys three times straight is a changing of the guard," Hilton said after the postgame celebration ended. "It gives us a lot of confidence, and guys are excited to see how this pans out."
For every step forward and step back the Bengals have made over the last 20 years, Pittsburgh has been a main character in the story. In 2005, the Steelers knocked former Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer out of the playoffs and eliminated Cincinnati in the first round.
In 2013, the Steelers dominated the Bengals on "Sunday Night Football" and knocked Bengals punter Kevin Huber out of the game with one of the defining hits of the rivalry. In 2015, the Steelers embarrassed the Bengals in the first round of the playoffs in a game that had one of the worst collapses in Cincinnati’s history.
A last-second loss to Pittsburgh in 2018 marked the beginning of the end for former Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. In 2019, former Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton gave the Bengals a reason to move in a new direction with his performance against Pittsburgh on "Monday Night Football."
All of those losses and all of those failures against Pittsburgh led the Bengals to head coach Zac Taylor, Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and the rest of a completely rebuilt roster. It led the Bengals to Sunday’s win over the Steelers.
"These (fans) pay good money to watch us play and we need to win in front of them," Taylor said. "These fans need to be rewarded for their support. We need to put a winner out there they can be proud of.”
The Bengals started with a perfect first half. Burrow completed 14 of his first 16 passes, including a perfectly placed deep ball to wide receiver Tee Higgins that went for a touchdown. Running back Joe Mixon had 117 yards and a touchdown before halftime as the Bengals offensive line dominated the game.
"Our goal is to go through this division," Taylor said. "We’ve got to be better than we ever have been in this division."
Bengals cornerback Eli Apple intercepted a pass on the Steelers first drive of the game, and Hilton closed the half with a pick six against his former team. After the Bengals beat the Steelers in Week 3, Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd said the Steelers players “quit” during the second half. In the second matchup of the year, the Bengals had a 31-3 lead at halftime.
"We have higher aspirations than beating the Steelers," Burrow said. "We’re right where we want to be. We can’t let up now."
On both sides of the ball, Cincinnati looked exactly like the team that the Bengals have said they’ve wanted to be over the last three seasons. The Bengals offense established the run and set the tone with physical runs from Mixon, who had a career-high 165 rushing yards. After bending the Steelers defense, Burrow found wide open receivers down the field.
The result was a moment the Bengals have been seeking for most of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s 18-year NFL career. The Bengals finally have a brighter future than their biggest rival.
With Roethlisberger nearing the end of his career and Burrow just getting started, the Bengals haven’t had such an advantage over their biggest rival in the Paul Brown Stadium Era.
As Hilton told the Bengals, the AFC North has always gone through Pittsburgh. With one of the Bengals biggest goals behind them, the only thing left for them to achieve in the regular season is making the playoffs.
"I guess it’s cool, but that’s just another team in our way for where we want to go," Mixon said. "Everyone knows what’s in front of us. Our work is cut out for us … I’m just happy for everybody reaping the benefits around here."
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati Bengals demolish Pittsburgh Steelers amid playoff push