If you’re a sports fan, usually you get stuck rooting for the teams that were close, geographically, to where you grew up. That’s just the way it is. If you grew up close to a franchise with a history of winning, then you’re probably going to have kind of a different relationship with sports than if you grew up a Cubs fan, for instance, where your team hasn’t won a World Series in more than a century and counting. By contrast, if you grew up in New York when the Yankees won four world championships in five years, then you don’t know what a lengthy drought is all about. You expect to win, and it’s perplexing when more than a season or two goes by without your squad hoisting the trophy or passing out those big, gaudy rings. But it’s something else entirely when you have a team, like my beloved Cincinnati Bengals, who have never won a Superbowl, who have never experienced ultimate success, despite the fact that they’re been in existence now since 1967. That’s approaching fifty years now of futility. I only became a serious Bengals fan after I left Cincinnati. It’s ironic, but only after I went to Pittsburgh, which has an even more rabid fan base, did I really start to appreciate football. That’s probably because I grew up in a household with two parents who didn’t even want me to have a TV, and with a father who couldn’t even tell you what conference the Bengals play in if his life depended on it. That’s okay. We don’t all have to be sports fans. The fact remains, though, I got on board and became a fan of a perennial loser. The Bengals have made it to two Superbowls, and lost both to the 49er’s and hall of famer Joe Montana. I wasn’t yet a fan, so I didn’t know the pain of those losses as they occurred. I’ve only known the pain of being a Bengals fan for the past decade, where there has actually been some moderate success under head coach Marvin Lewis. At the moment, for instance, the Bengals are the defending AFC North champions. Later today they have an opportunity to win the division again, when they take on the hated rival Steelers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
The Bengals still have yet to win a playoff game under Marvin Lewis. They have yet to win a playoff game since I’ve been a fan. Their last playoff win was a quarter of a century ago, in 1990. That’s kind of mind-boggling, when you think about it. Twenty-five years. You could have had a kid, sent the kid off to college, and that kid could be having kids of their own by now. And in the space of that time, no playoff victories, and few playoff appearances at all. It’s a long, long history of ineptitude we’re talking about here. The Bengals, more often known as the Bungles, have been the laughingstock of the league almost as long as they’ve been in existence. But perhaps, just perhaps, there is reason for hope. The Bengals punched their ticket to the playoffs on Monday by beating Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Cincinnati. They had never beaten Manning before. Prior to Monday, his record against them had been 8-0. No one expected the Bengals to beat the Broncos. Manning looked stunned that whole game. It was as though he couldn’t believe what was happening, because he’d always had his way with my team before. But Monday wasn’t about him. It was about a coming out party for a team that has been kicked and downtrodden for a long, long time.
Which brings us to today, and the Bengals vs the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has six Superbowl wins. They’re a franchise with a long history of winning, the antithesis of the lowly Bengals. Everyone expects the Steelers to win today. All the experts are picking them. It’s just an easy pick to make. The Bengals are on the road, the Steelers are at home, and Cincinnati has this long, storied history of losing critical games. But the Bengals bucked the trend on Monday, handing Manning his first loss against them. And I believe if they play their best today, they can beat the Steelers too. Will they? Later tonight I’ll find out. My team plays with a lot of history against them. But prior to last year, the Seahawks had never won it all, and they walked off the field Superbowl champions. Maybe Monday was the start of something miraculous for my team. Hope springs eternal. In a few short hours I’ll know if my long-time losers can take a huge step toward reversing their fortunes, or if it’s going to be business as usual in the Queen City.