Andy Dalton is chasing an NFL passing title that Ken Anderson won four times.
Welcome to the Ken Anderson Bowl when his Bengals try to clinch the AFC North Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against those Steelers at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.
Anderson wore Andy Dalton's No. 14 into history during 16 seasons in Cincinnati he staked a claim in Canton. He also coached Ben Roethlisberger during one of his Super Bowl runs. But even Big Ben knows where the first No. 14 stands in this rivalry.
It was just before this training camp when Roethlisberger happened into Anderson's new hometown of Hilton Head, S.C. and realized he was in a Bengals bar.
"It must have reminded him. He gave me a call," Anderson says. "Always have been, always will be (a Bengal)."
Anderson has been respected by Steelers greats for years. One time in the late '70s - Anderson is pretty sure it was 1979 - he got "The Invite." With Hall-of-Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene on top of Anderson on the ground after yet another sack in the fourth quarter of the Steelers' 37-17 win in Pittsburgh, he offered the rare and supreme Steel Curtain compliment with, "Hey Ken, why don't you stop in the locker room for a beer after the game?"
Dalton and his Bengals are trying to do what Anderson and those '75 Bengals couldn't do and make a toast to 11-2 in a game against the Steelers in a bid to squeeze out home-field advantage for the post-season.
And, if you can believe it, it is 40 years to the day of that game at old Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Just like this year in the unseasonable delight of 45 degrees. They played the game on Dec. 13, 1975, a Saturday, and the defending Super Bowl champions rolled to 12-1 with a 35-14 win over the Bengals.
It's also the 40th anniversary of Anderson's back-to-back NFL passing titles, the bookend of the pair he would win six and seven years later with new coaches and receivers. Dalton heads into the game leading the NFL in passing with a slight lead over another former Bengal, Carson Palmer, and Anderson is pulling for another No. 14 in stripes to lead the league.
"Just keep doing what he's doing," is what Anderson counsels. "More than anything else, the team has to stay healthy around him. Whenever a quarterback is successful it's because he's got good people around him. It all starts up front. They've got a good offensive line. He's got guys on the outside that can get open quickly so he can get rid of the ball. He's got a great tight end that can work the middle. You have a running game that can keep defenses honest and backs that can be successful out of the backfield. They're a total package on offense and that's what you need for a quarterback to be successful."
Anderson's four NFL passing tittles are the linchpins of his Hall of Fame case. To pull off two each half a decade apart with completely different casts is unheard of, but it also reflects what Anderson is saying.
In 1974-75 he had Bob Trumpy at tight end controlling the middle. In 1981-82, it was Danny Ross setting records for tight ends. In 1974-75, Anderson had a future Hall-of-Famer in Charlie Joiner and a should-be-Hall-of-Famer in Isaac Curtis at receivers. In 1981-82 he had Curtis at the end and Cris Collinsworth at the beginning. In 1974-75, they had a solid offensive line anchored by his road roommate and right guard Dave Lapham and two solid tackles in Vernon Holland and Rufus Mayes.
"Then along came (right guard) Max Montoya, (left tackle) Anthony Munoz and Moon Pie (right tackle Mike Wilson). It all starts up front," Anderson said. "If a quarterback has a good offensive line, he's got a chance.
"That's the thing that was similar. I had a group of pretty good guys around me. It was still good people."
The other constant besides Curtis was Lapham, the long-time Bengals radio analyst who blocked for him at every offensive line position. Lapham came in as a rookie in 1974 and left in 1983 and by the time he was gone Anderson had survived the challenges of John Reaves and Jack Thompson and was ready to break in a rookie in 1984 named Norman Julius Esiason.
"I've seen guys as accurate, but nobody as accurate as Kenny," Lapham says. "He could put it in the tightest window you could want."
There are a lot of similarities with Anderson and Dalton. Both are not word men and the little they do say it is usually about their teammates. Off the field, both are heavily committed to the community. On the field they are known as cerebral players. At the moment, Anderson is more decorated.
Ken Anderson, handing off to O.J. Simpson in a Pro Bowl, got to know the Steel Curtain at the annual all-star game.
When he won his third passing title in '81 leading the Bengals to the Super Bowl, Anderson was named NFL MVP.
"I'm not saying Andy is the MVP," Lapham says. "But if he wins the passing title and the Bengals are the best team in the AFC, you have to put his name out there. He's got to be in the conversation you would think at some point."
One of the reasons the Bengals drafted Anderson in the third round in 1971 is they believed his strength in math showed he has a quick mind. But the NFL passing formula isn't exactly in his wheel house.
"You probably know more about the formula than I do," Anderson says. "All I know is when you play well, you have a high rating. When you play badly, you have a low rating. I always thought the only stat that really matters is how many games are you winning and they're wining a lot of games and that's a credit to him. They've been behind and he's brought them back and he's made big plays. I've very impressed with the way he's played."
Cincinnati Bengals travel to Cleveland to play the Browns in week 13 of the regular season 12/06/2015
Its funny weird how the numbers are working out and we're not talking about the passing formula. A day shy of the 40th anniversary of the 6-0 Bengals playing the Steelers, the 6-0 Bengals played the Steelers on Nov. 1. Unlike in '75, the Bengals won to go to 7-0.
Now on the 40th anniversary of the 10-2 Bengals playing the Steelers, the Bengals, well, they hope to stand history on its head again.
Anderson was a one-man gang against The Steel Curtain back on Dec. 13, 1975 in game the Bengals had it within 14-7, but lost, 35-14.
While Steelers running back Franco Harris rushed for 118 yards on 20 carries, Boobie Clark, Lenvil Elliott, and Essex Johnson combined for just 53 yards on their 20 carries. Meanwhile, Anderson kept it alive, running for 69 yards and completing 19 of 32 passes for 236 yards under the intense heat of a defense with Hall-of-Famers at every level.
The Steel Curtain took another encore at the Super Bowl a month later with a defense that allowed just nine TD passes and picked off 27 interceptions. Anderson threw four of those TDs and nearly pulled it off against them in Cincinnati earlier in the year, throwing for three TDs, three picks, and 331 yards in rallying them back from a 23-3 deficit before losing, 30-24.
"They stopped a lot of people," Lapham says. "They ended up winning the whole thing again. That was about the time they started to tilt Joe Greene into the gap and he'd consume guys while (linebacker) Jack Lambert flew around back there. Lambert didn't take guys on downhill, but he could move so well laterally. The defensive linemen sacrificed a lot."
The AFC Central has morphed into the AFC North, but what has changed?
"The Steelers tradition and history are similar," Lapham says. "They play butt-kicking defense, they run the ball and they've got a quarterback that can make plays. They're always physical. The one common thing is if you don't buckle your chin strap twice, you can get embarrassed very easily. You can't turn it over. The Bengals are 8-1 when they're plus in turnovers and the Steelers are 7-1 when they're plus this year in turnovers, and it's been that way forever."
More than the particulars of that loss to go to 10-3, Anderson remembers what it meant. A Wild Card and a road play-off game while the Steelers won the division at 12-2 and home field.
"They sent us out to Oakland and we lost a close one at the end," Anderson says. "Let's keep winning, let's get the home-field advantage.
"What are we? Fourth in scoring? Hue Jackson has done a great job keeping defenses off balance," says Anderson of the offensive coordinator. "The big thing is you have your fate in your hands and here we go."
There also won't be a replay this time of "The Invite."
"You know they really respected him to do that," Lapham says. "I think it started in '74 when he went 20-for-22 against them in Cincinnati."
Like any great story, it has taken on some legs over the years. And Anderson isn't looking to clarify a whole heck of a lot.
"The only reason I got the invitation to the locker room is they kicked the crap out of us," Anderson says with his trademark humility. "I knew a lot of those guys and played in a couple of Pro Bowls with them. They closed off the sauna and they had a garbage can full of beer and I went in there and sat with (Terry) Bradshaw and some of those guys and we'll leave it at that."
At the height of the '70s and the Steelers, the only bigger show of respect was probably a Pro Bowl.
"It was nice to be able to do," Anderson says.
Count in the first No.14. Like everyone else in Bengaldom, he'll be watching and looking for 40 years to get sacked.