A very placid and almost ominous feeling hung in the atmosphere as the pre-game warm-up unfolded before me at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati on Monday night. It was the opposite of the week before in New Orleans. The electricity that gripped the Superdome was tumultuous, the volume tremendous, and the fans raucous. This night seemed to be destined for a slow start. I couldn't have been more wrong.
* Pre-game brought out the usual suspects and I had a chance to visit with former Buffalonian Ron Jaworski , Boomer Esiason, former Steelers teammate Mark Malone, and retired Bengal center and Outland Trophy winner Dave Rimington from my era. Also the Commisioner, Roger Goodell, cruised on by and of course Lucille Ball did come up in the conversation.
I also had a chance to visit with Marvin Lewis before the game. I've been a longtime fan of this man. He's an excellent coach, but he looked weary. I wonder if he's not reached the breaking point with Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens and the whole T-Ocho thing.
* Emmanuel Sanders got the mojo running from the git-go when he got his hat on a football held by Bernard Scott on the opening kickoff. This young man ran down the field fearlessly. He's not afraid to launch himself downfield without a parachute. His performances of late shows why the coaching staff has such confidence that the Antonio Brown-Sanders weekly battle to get a hat has come down to "it's Manny's to lose."
* First play of the game, Ben Roethlisberger hooked up with Heath Miller on a nearly identical route on which Heath fumbled last week in New Orleans. There was no doubt from a player's perspective that you want to vanquish the heebie-jeebies right away and get last week's remnants of a fumble out of your system and get positive mojination, which is exactly what happened. No matter how tough of a competitor you are, those bad plays can stick in your craw. The Turk up in the booth subscribes to this as the "Pistachio Theory." When you have a bad pistachio, the only thing that can remove the taste is -- not a soda, not a pastrami sandwich – but a good pistachio.
* Before the game I kibitzed with Amos Jones, the assistant special teams coach. As I do every week, I asked for a number of the guy on special teams that needed to come up big. "Twenty-two" was his reply. Will Gay started the night and finished the night with big plays both on the "special forces" and sub-packages that he's been doing a great job on all year. Yeah I know there are some scoffers, but given the job he's required to do, and where he's come from in terms of being down and out, I am a fan of Will, and his blitzing was spot on and crucial. He's on a growth path that Deshea Townsend used down for a long time. Will's block of a punt in the first quarter was set-up by the hard work of Matt Spaeth to draw a tackle and isolate the guard on the Bengals' punt team. Will took advantage of a gap and got the double-thump sound of a blocked kick that makes one set of coaches cringe and the other to leap for joy.
* In the second quarter, on a short pass, Hines Ward coughed up the ball. Hines came down the sideline past me and I could clearly see the frustration etched on his face. There was no smile to drive defenders crazy on this play. Great competitors do not take personal failure to deliver the goods lightly. The flame of competition burns as brightly in Hines's 13th year as in his first year.
* Speaking of Spaeth, he was only a play or so from making his debut at tackle. If Pouncey hadn't cowboyed-up and got back to work, Matt would've been getting a crash course on kick-stepping to the corner on pass rushes.
* Third-and-2 from the Cincy 44, Roethlisberger threw for 39 yards to Mike Wallace down the sideline right in front of me and it was challenged by the Bengals. From my vantage point without replay, I was thinking it was an easy catch. Ball tucked, three steps, ball stripped and rolled out of bounds. Bengals CB Leon Hall is incensed and immediately began making challenge gestures. My mind drifted back to Tomlin's Tuesday presser the previous week when he talked about field-level judgments and receiving legitimate versus emotional advice from his guys. I guess Marv trusted the wrong guy, because it wasn't even close.
* You can tell how much a guy means to the team when you see several guys out there checking on his injury. When Maurkice Pouncey went down, there were a bunch of teammates out there on the field, which is quite an unusual amount of respect shown to a rookie. Pouncey is not your typical rookie though. This young man has had quite the impact on his fellow players. Maurkice got a shin cruncher but returned to the fray.
* Tomlin said something post-game that I totally agree with. Something about the great ones will get theirs. Yes, Terrell Owens is a great one. And he got his last night. But watching Bryant McFadden locked in man coverage one-on-one at times last night was great fun. The drama of seeing two pros go toe-to-toe in a high stakes, high speed confrontation is unnerving. T.O. is a big, physical receiver and the hard hitting hand play of jamming and moving from B-Mac was fun to watch from a ringside seat.
* Special teams ace Will Allen got buzzed up on a third-quarter punt coverage assignment. What scares many people is seeing a guy woozy after a play when he gets up too fast. Will walked by me after the play was over and I could see he had checked back into the moment. After the game I spent a couple of minutes talking with him and he was right as rain. It reminded me of the time against Houston back in the day when I got buzzed and pulled a "Curly shuffle" before face-planting at Three Rivers. My teammates thought it was hilarious. Obviously, different eras.
* James Harrison had something going on last night. While out for a few plays James bent over and started chumming up the sidelines. I don't want to know what he ate for pre-game, but it wasn't much.
* In the third quarter, on a base protection, Bengals DT Pat Sims got the edge on Trai Essex during a pass rush. Flozell Adams was playing in between the outside rusher on Spaeth, and Trai. Big Flo came down to the inside on Sims with a kill that shot rag-dolled Sims. Some of the physical things Flozell does are so impressive it's hard to put into words. To see somebody mulch a 300-plus pounder in real-time, from groundhog level, like he was squashing a bug, is riveting.
* Antwaan Randle El's razzle-dazzle toss to Wallace left me with the distinct impression that the Bengals were about to fold up like a card table. Body language said they were all but ready to tank. I started the game thinking wrongly; I finished thinking the same incorrect way.
* Ochocinco got himself a timeout for an on-field tantrum and ended up sitting by the water cooler. T.O. played on without his co-host and hauled in a TD pass and went to the sideline. From across the field it looked like something from "The View." T.O. stood in front of Chad, who refused to engage and obviously bad feelings were abounding. It looked ridiculous. No wonder Marvin looked so weary.
* Later on, after the Bengals got back in the hunt, I saw Chad talking, and from a distance it looked as if he was pleading with Marvin to lift his timeout. Marv obliged, and Chad responded by dropping a pass before catching one.
* Another little mystery: Chad wore a shiny, reflective gold pair of cleats in the first half, last seen in the Wizard of Oz. In the second half, he wore a rather mundane pair of beat-up white shoes. Was Chad making a statement as to that Robert Frost poem "Nothing gold can stay"? Call me crazy, but I wouldn't put it past Chad to try to make a statement like that.
* The best thing to come out of this game (besides the W) was watching the defense reverse the fortunes of last year. With nearly identical circumstances, the defense made plays this time and sealed the win. Do you want it to come down to that? No. But it sure gives the defense a jolt of confidence. It's the pistachio nut theory again here.
* The Steelers beat the Bengals in Cincinnati, Steelers fans have taken over the stadium, and the "Esca-loser" is running. All is well with the world.