One of the all-time Bengals killers shows up Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (8:20 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) when Hines Ward sheds his Steelers cape for the NBC blazer, but even though he's picking his old team to win he thinks this is a better Bengals team than the one that beat the Steelers for two AFC North titles.
And Ward, who retired after 14 seasons back in the spring, puts the emphasis on team.
"They had a lot of characters on that team and I don't know if you could put all those characters together. When you need to make a play you've got to put your ego aside and let the guy make a play," Ward said this week. "Our team always had a bunch of unselfish guys and regardless of whom they were, they were going to make a play. Where for Cincinnati I think it was all about who made the plays."
But with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green now in charge, Ward can feel the different feel.
"I look at them overall and they may not be as talented as some of the teams they had, but they're a better team overall than the teams they had in the past."
He also thinks the Bengals have a shot at overtaking the Steelers in the North because of Pittsburgh's struggles on defense, particularly the loss of strong safety Troy Polamalu.
"Pittsburgh is in an adjustment period," Ward said. "They're losing some veteran guys they're trying to replace with younger guys and they haven't really stood out so far. To lose a Troy to injury, it's kind of tough for Dick LeBeau to run his defense when you don't have the veteran guys you need to have on the field and the new guys haven't proven themselves."
Ward has proven to be an unpopular figure in the Bengals locker room. When he retired, Bengals safety Chris Crocker called him a dirty player. Former Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers always indicated he felt Ward took too many liberties with the PBS blindside block that ended his rookie season in 2008 with a broken jaw. After tight end Heath Miller caught a short route, Ward peeled back and drilled Rivers from the side and he still defends the play and his aggressive style.
But there's also a lot of mutal respect. Crocker also said Ward deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. According to Elias, Ward caught 131 balls for 1,588 yards, and 15 TDs against the Bengals, the most ever in all three categories against Cincinnati.
"I didn't want to hurt Keith in any way. To this day you still see guys getting hit like that," Ward said. "I was just helping the tight end pick up a couple of extra yards. I didn't get penalized for it. I didn't get fined for it but everybody keeps calling it a dirty hit. I don't understand how it's dirty when you don't get fined or penalized. I'm sure they'd probably call it (today) because they're trying to clean up the game, but there's nothing illegal about it.
"From what they were telling me of the description, I could have just stood in his way. But it's football. Nobody tackled me softly when I went across the middle. Why would I just stand in his way?"
Ward thinks the Steelers are vulnerable Sunday and he thinks Green and Dalton "have a great rapport," but he's going with his old club.
"Both teams need it bad," he said. "Pittsburgh has had success in Cincinnati for a long time."