When all-time Bengals linebacker Reggie Williams recalled his old AFC Central rival who passed Wednesday, Steelers Pro Football Hall of Famer Franco Harris, it conjured up the blues and some bruises.
"We became friends off the field,' said Williams, who once sang a bluesy duet with Harris at a Super Bowl after they were retired when they were called on stage to join the band.
"My rookie year (1976) they were the defending Super Bowl champions. I remember feeling that Franco was the greatest adversary I would ever face. He was."
The next year in a Monday night game at Three Rivers Stadium, the 6-1, 228-pound Williams experienced the greatness of the 6-2, 230-pound Harris head on in a play involving Bengals middle linebacker Jim LeClair, a 6-3, 234-pounder who went to a Pro Bowl.
"Jimmy LeClair and I ran into each other trying to hit Franco," Williams said. "He gave his little hop and spin and we both barely missed. I thought I had him dead to rights."
Williams injured his lower back and he didn't know until later that it was LeClair who also went down while the quicker-than-you-thought Harris escaped for a chunk of those 12,000-plus yards that helped cement a struggling franchise as a contender.
"One side of my body was in extreme pain and the other side was numb," Williams said. "To Jimmy's credit he said that's the hardest hit he ever took. It's the hardest hit I ever took. He dodged us both. That was the differential. You expected to confront a big running back bigger than you, but he was so light on his feet you had to tackle him with light feet."
They had some wars. While the Steelers were dominating the '70s, the toughest division games were against the Bengals. With Harris, the Steelers were 18-5 against the Browns and 16-6 against the Oilers, but just 13-9 against the Bengals, whose defenses held Harris to his fewest AFC Central career yards.
"He was a very, very nice and compassionate person," Williams said. "He didn't talk crap about how great they were or when they beat us. He knew we were competitive."
BENGALS BRING TOUGH MATCHUPS INTO TOUGH BUILDING: The 7-7 Patriots may be coming off the most high-profile turnover in New England since the populace turned over King George III with the Raiders' Chandler Jones picking off a lateral on the last play of the game and taking it 48 yards to beat the Pats. Losing a game on the last play to a fumble recovery TD hasn't happened in 44 years.
But Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is 7-0 against the Bengals when coming off a loss, 4-0 with New England and 3-0 with Cleveland. He's also 13-0 with the Pats facing a team that is on a six-game winning streak or better in Week 14 or later and that includes playoffs.
Plus, the Pats have the third most sacks in the NFL with six games of least four sacks and Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow is 0-3 when sacked more than three times, which hasn't happened since Halloween
And, the Pats' sixth-ranked defense is coming off holding Las Vegas wide receiver Davante Adams to 28 yards on four catches when they used a Cover 1 Double defense five times. Belichick used it well against Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson years ago and according to Next Gen Stats, it's the first time the Pats did it this year on multiple snaps.
But the Bengals are coming in with the most varied offense in the league. They're the only team with five players who have at least 600 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns (running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine and wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins Tyler Boyd) and the only team with three wide receivers all with at least 600 yards.
Belichick is famous for taking away what the offense does best, but these Bengals seem to be able to play left-handed as well as right-handed. Yet Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan knows they'll need all ten fingers.
"It feels very much like all the New England teams I've ever played against," said Callahan, who has been in the league more than a decade. "They have a bunch of guys that do their jobs very well. I know that's what they preach there and how they run things in that organization. It's no different this year. They look the same. Faces change, numbers change, but the way they play and style they play with the discipline they play with has been pretty consistent over the last 25 years. I don't see anything different than we have always seen in New England. We've got our work cut out for us, it's a good unit."
SWEET LOU: Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo grew up watching Belichick's Giants defenses in New York and wouldn't you know it the Pats bring into this game the duo leading the NFL in sacks with 25. Matthew Judon is second in the NFL with 14.5 and Josh Uche has all 10.5 of his since Halloween.
The only times a Belichick defense has had multiple players with at least ten sacks is the 1985 and 1986 Giants with Lawrence Taylor and Leonard Marshall.
Asked which defense was better, the 1986 or 1990 Belichick versions that both led the Giants to Super Bowl wins, Anarumo said, "I'll go with the '86. We were just ass-kickers. Not that we weren't in '90, but we beat the 49ers. I say we. We killed them in the Meadowlands that one year. The (Joe) Montana, (Jerry) Rice and all that. Just a great defense. It was unbelievable."
REGGIE ON PRATT: On a lighter note, Williams is loving the play of the linebacker wearing the No. 57 he wore for 14 seasons and 206 games.
"I'm so proud he's wearing my number," Williams said. "He has made some turnovers at the most critical parts of the game. He's turned games around with his own stellar play. That's such a great asset to have a linebacker who is that kind of playmaker."
Williams should know. The play of Pratt had him looking up some of his own numbers. His 23 career fumble recoveries, he believes, leads all Bengals.
"Since he's wearing that number," Williams said, "I'm expecting even more (big plays)."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: When edge Joseph Ossai returned to Tampa Bay's Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, he said he put out of his mind that's the place where suffered season-ending injuries in his first NFL appearance in last year's preseason opener.
"When you're driving and you say, 'Don't hit the curb, don't hit the curb,' you hit the curb," Ossai said.
When he hit Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, causing Pratt's interception, he said his mind didn't flash back to the sack he had of Brady in that first game on that first series. "I was making sure he didn't throw it. His release is insane."
"(Ossai) definitely had some flash plays," Anarumo said. "He's getting better. Geez, he dropped into coverage and almost had an interception on one. Brady threw a great ball. He's really starting to come on." …
With ace sacker Trey Hendrickson (wrist) inactive and the other starting edge Sam Hubbard (calf) done after 22 snaps, defensive line coach Marin Hobby sent out eight linemen that played at least 18 snaps, the career high of seventh-round edge Jeff Gunter.
"Marion Hobby had a great quote," Ossai said. "It's not next man up, it's the next man stepping up." …
The forecast is for 25 degrees in Foxboro Saturday, making it the coldest Bengals game in five years, when Boyd beat the Ravens in 19-degree Baltimore on the last play of the 2017 season to knock them out of the playoffs with a 49-yard touchdown catch in the last minute.
"Used to it. Shouldn't be a problem," Boyd said after practice Thursday. "That was cold, though. I got sick." ….
Nose tackle D.J. Reader likes playing in Gillette: "I like playing anywhere they're passionate about football and those fans are passionate."
But he's already warned his teammates that they don't want to hear the crowd singing Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."
"That means you lost," Reader said…
Thursday's Bengals injury report, which followed the most intense practice of the short week, remained pretty much unchanged. But starting cornerback Eli Apple (ankle) was added to the limited section while Higgins (hamstring) went full.
Hubbard didn't practice again and Hendrickson was limited. So were starting cornerbacks Mike Hilton (ankle) and Cam Taylor-Britt (shoulder), punt returner Trent Taylor (hamstring) and backup slot cornerback Jalen Davis (thumb).
But head coach Zac Taylor is hoping those guys are trending like starting tight end Hayden Hurst (calf), still listed as limited but sounding ready to play after injuring it in the second drive of the Dec. 4 win over the Chiefs pushing off on a route.
"I feel great. I did some route running stuff. I really got my confidence back," Hurst said. "I'm preparing like I'm playing Saturday." ….