The Bengals had just beaten the Steelers at their own game to prove that, yes, head coach Zac Taylor's regime can win an unvarnished, bare-knuckled AFC North game. So what they savored wasn't so much Monday night's 27-17 victory at Paul Brown Stadium but how they did it.
"We knew it was going to be a dirty game. Coach Taylor brought it up," said running back Giovani Bernard after he ran and caught it for a combined 97 yards on a night yards were sparse. "When you play those divisional games, the records don't matter. It's about who wants it more and it just showed just the type of mentality that we had going into the game. We started off hot coming back after the second half, we started off slow, but we continued to keep fighting."
The team that had turned it over the week before on its first three possessions beat the NFL's best at turnover differential with a resounding plus-three while turning those three turnovers into 17 points in vintage Steelers fashion.
The team that was on pace to throw their most passes ever beat the AFC North leaders with their second backup quarterback throwing 13, their fewest passes since a 1987 strike game.
The team that started its eighth straight different offensive line paved the way for the Bengals' most rushing yards against the Steelers' sixth-ranked run defense in 20 years with 152.
"It was just the decision we made earlier in the week," Taylor said of running it 41 times, the most rush attempts in his 30 games as coach. "You've got a long week to think about it, and we played them before. And, really, I thought we had a good plan the first time we played them —we just struggled on third down and with the turnovers. But again, our guys just did a good job executing and played with a ton of energy. You know, it was just fun to watch them go …. I thought our guys controlled the energy throughout the entire game. And a divisional game. That's important."
That was because the defense wouldn't let them lose the nuclear fission energy they opened the game with when they held quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to minus-two yards passing in the first quarter.
The energy hissed and steamed after the Steelers had cut it to 17-10 in the middle of the third quarter as quarterback Ryan Finley was ushered out on two three-and-outs to open the second half.
But Bengals middle linebacker Josh Bynes came roaring up the middle to drop Steelers running back Benny Snell Jr., in his tracks on third-and-one to force a punt and the Bengals were off on complementary football to string together their first six first downs of the half as the third quarter turned to the fourth in the guts of a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive.
"We've had those games where guys are playing good and doing their thing, but we just came up short," Bynes said. "I'm just glad obviously that guys made plays, did their thing and did what they're supposed to do and did it as a collective effort. Offense made plays, defense made plays, special teams. It was just great to be sound and fundamental and finally make that one play to lead us to victory today."
And there was this, too.
The team that supposedly loses its cool against the Steelers watched Pittsburgh implode on a late hit. The team that has been accused of letting the Steelers get in their heads the past five seasons watched Pittsburgh wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster do his pregame thing on the Bengals midfield logo before safety Vonn Bell forced him to fumble on a hellacious hit that turned into seven points in a 10-point win.
After slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander made his first Bengals' interception when Roethlisberger threw it to him over the middle, Steelers offensive lineman Chukwuma Okorafor hammered him out of bounds at the end of his 21-yard return to pick up a 15-yard penalty in a Steeler-esque swing of 36 yards.
After Alexander followed that up making a nice play on Smith-Schuster to get them off the field on third down, he was called for taunting and they had to do it again. And Alexander, playing another really good game, did when he knocked away a slant headed to Smith-Schuster. That's about the time Bynes, the old pro lifting his record to 6-2 against the Steelers, gathered his guys together on the sidelines for a talk.
"Just to keep our poise. The game, we obviously were humming defensively and we were doing our thing," Bynes said. "I just didn't want us to (stoop) down and not let the emotions of the game and how we are playing right now and get to a part where we are losing that and losing that side of ourselves because at the end of the day we are here to win games. We do all that smack-talking and all that stuff but we just didn't want to have a stupid penalty because we are jawing back and forth with them. Obviously it's a rival and we know what it takes, but we can't let that take away from the mission."
The Alexander pick, coming with the Bengals leading, 10-0, and not allowing the Steelers any air, gave the first half a definitive Bengals finish.
"It was such a huge play in the game," Bynes said. "That's why I say, the energy, what we had, it was just so powerful and energetic. It just gave us so much energy on offense and those guys did their thing. Mackensie played a heck of a game today."
So did Finley, who praised Taylor, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and offensive line coach Jim Turner for crafting a run game that included using him 10 times for 47 yards on an arsenal of zone reads. The ground game had struggled as of late, but on this night it controlled the tempo the Bengals had built with 32 minutes of clock.
"When you can eliminate one guy out of the box that you don't have to block and read. It just kind of came about," Finley said. "I thought Zac Taylor called an unbelievable game. It was the type of game we were expecting — gritty at times with a lot of running the ball. It was really well done from everyone involved.
"That's kind of how the game unfolded, with what they were giving us with 11 personnel (three wide receivers, one back). Zac, Brian and Jimmy did a really good job of seeing what personnel groupings they were giving us, because the Steelers like to change it up. We had a good menu of runs versus all those personnels. We executed them really well."
Taylor gave a game ball to everyone for this one, but if anyone typified the win it was Bernard after he carried it 25 times for 83 yards and slithered away from three Steelers on a 14-yard-catch-and-dash touchdown.
He is a reminder that there have been good days here and not too long ago. He mirrored what he did on a Monday night seven years ago as a rookie when he also scored a touchdown running and receiving in a 10-point Paul Brown Stadium win over the Steelers.
"That was welcome to the NFL for myself. It's a game that I'll never forget. Obviously, it was a Monday night. I had my family here in town. It was a big opportunity for me to show out in front of my family," Bernard recalled. "I'm just thankful I was able to do that back in 2013. Funny enough, I had some of my family members – my brother was able to make the trip from Oregon all the way down to Florida for Christmas to spend it with my dad and they were able to watch the game together. Having them together just means a lot to me. We are two for two on Monday nights when my family is together, so just super thankful for them."
Plus, it was only a week ago he watched his NFL-best streak of carries without a fumble end on the game's second play. That skein that stretched all the way back to that rookie year. It was one of those three deadly turnovers against the Cowboys and he carried only two more times the rest of the day.
It turns out they were just resting him up.
"It was a tough game. Things like that are going to happen, but something I've prided myself on is how you rebound from something bad," Bernard said. "Throughout my life I've been dealt bad cards here and there, but it's always what does that next hand holds. There is always an opportunity to capitalize. There is always an opportunity to grow from your mistakes or whatever it may have been … It's in my DNA. I love the opportunity to be able to come back and to be able to do something special."
It was that kind of night. How they did it was just as good as what they did.