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After the total dismantling of the Pittsburgh Steelers by the Cincinnati Bengals was complete, an ecstatic Bengals defensive back Mike Hilton was first talking about his 28-yard interception return touchdown that helped bury the Steelers and then eventually got around to discussing whether this result gives the Bengals the upper hand over their AFC North rivals.
“Absolutely, no question about it,” Hilton chimed in. “Beating these guys — for me, twice, and for some of these other guys, three times straight — it’s a big change in the guard, in our opinion.
“It’s giving us a lot of confidence, and guys are excited to see how the rest of the season plays out.”
Hilton’s reaction is understandable because he spent the previous four seasons with the Steelers. And there was, no doubt, a twinge of personal revenge and self-satisfaction in the answer.
But what makes the Cincinnati Bengals both a dangerous and interesting team over the season’s final two months is how they are seemingly growing up before our eyes.
This young team, with the 24-year-old quarterback just swept the more accomplished Steelers and their 39-year-old quarterback for the first time since 2009.
And the sweep isn’t really what the Bengals are most excited about.
“We’re 2-0 against them,” Burrow said in matter-of-fact tone. “We have higher aspirations than beating the Steelers right now.”
Here come the Bengals, folks.
They’re 7-4, winners of two consecutive games, and have the look of a team that’s improving at the right time while the older Steelers are, well, none of that.
And Sunday’s thorough 41-10 win suggests the younger Bengals have passed their more accomplished foe.
“We’re right where we want to be,” Burrow said. “We have high aspirations this year. We can’t let up now, though. We started out strong, then we kind of skidded a little bit there in the middle of the season. Now, coming down the stretch, I think we’re really hitting our stride, so we’ve got to keep having great weeks of practice.
“I think we have guys that are excited about where we’re at, but not satisfied.”
The Bengals trail only the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North and those two will play the day after Christmas. But did I tell you the Bengals already beat Baltimore 41-17 this season?
And they’re winning with balance on offense with, for example, Joe Mixon rushing for 165 yards and two touchdowns, and Burrow completing 20 of 24 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown to go with an inconsequential interception.
The day showed balance for the Cincy offense that had reporters asking Burrow whether it was the best offensive performance of the season.
“Yeah, I would say so,” Burrow answered. “It felt like we were rolling the whole day. We started to get up by a bunch and started to play more conservative, but at the beginning we were rolling.”
The defense is showing up, too. Obviously, Hilton’s score was big. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson collected a sack in his seventh consecutive game. And the Steelers managed only 51 rushing yards.
“We got beat up-front on both sides of the ball, and they won the line of scrimmage,” a disappointed Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “When you win the line of scrimmage, the game has a chance to look like that.”
What it looks like for the Bengals is they need to continue to beat division opponents and build on their 3-1 division record.
“Our goal is to go through this division,” coach Zac Taylor said. “We have to be better than we ever have been in this division if you want to go to the playoffs and be ready for all the things that that brings. Really just the way I look at it right now, to be 3-1 (in the division), that’s the position we wanted to be in.
“It’s not about dominating anybody, we just have to win all these divisional games to create that separation we’re going to need. But certainly it feels pretty dang good to go 2-0 against a team in our division.”
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero