Rumble in 'The Jungle'

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker

CINCINNATI -- Several years ago, Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco compared the Pittsburgh Steelers to a black-and-white television.

Ochocinco credited the Steelers' past success. But he believed their run was over and it was time for the division to be dominated by a colorful new team wearing bright orange.

Ochocinco’s prediction never came to fruition. The Steelers won the Super Bowl following the 2005 season -- the same year Ochocinco made that statement -- and this season they’re in the middle of another title defense.

But with both teams currently at .500, the table is set for a rumble in the "The Jungle" between the Steelers and Bengals on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Pittsburgh -- which went 6-0 in the division last year -- is trying to maintain its dominance while the Bengals are fighting for leaguewide respect.

Although it’s early, this matchup will set the table for where both teams stand in the AFC North and could play a large role in altering the course of each team’s season. Pittsburgh has won five straight in this series and hasn’t lost in Cincinnati since 2001. But the Bengals can turn the tables with a marquee victory over the Steelers this Sunday.

"Everybody knows it’s a big game," Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer said. "Every division game [is big]. You combine that with your first division home game, and you combine that with they’re the defending champs, it’s a recipe for a big game."

Bengals fighting back

The Bengals showed a lot of heart in last week’s 31-24 road win over the Green Bay Packers (1-1). Cincinnati was a huge underdog coming off a heartbreaking loss in Week 1 to the Denver Broncos, but the Bengals overcame early mistakes and imposed their will on Green Bay to pull off the upset.

The Bengals, who have a reputation as a finesse team, have worked extremely hard on being more physically imposing because that’s what it takes to win in their division. This offseason Cincinnati acquired thumpers on defense such as safety Roy Williams, defensive lineman Tank Johnson and impressive rookie outside linebacker Rey Maualuga. Tailback Cedric Benson also is dictating the pace offensively and pounding the ball to the tune of 108.5 rushing yards per game.

With a revitalized running game and an aggressive defense, Cincinnati is building the same successful blueprint that AFC North stalwarts Pittsburgh and the Baltimore Ravens have used in the past. Through two games the Bengals are rated No. 11 in total defense, two spots behind Pittsburgh, and are leading the NFL with nine sacks, which is turning some heads.

"Our offense hasn’t even caught up to our defense just as far as level of play. They are ahead of us by so much," said Ochocinco, who believes this is the best defense he's played with in Cincinnati. "I’d say by Week 5 or 6 we will be clicking on all cylinders."

Lately, Cincinnati's defense has been getting a lot of praise for its play. But typical of any coach, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis says the accolades are premature.

"To talk about it now really doesn’t make any sense," Lewis said of his defense. "The end of the year is how you’re judged. What you do through 16 games is how you’re judged. At the end of the year, we can sit and have a long discussion about it."

Revenge factor?

As with any rivalry, there are interesting subplots.

This is the first meeting for Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers against Pittsburgh since wide receiver Hines Ward broke his jaw with a crushing block last year. The play, which was legal at the time, ended Rivers’ rookie season and prompted a rule change in the offseason to prevent blindside blocks.

But that was of little solace for Rivers, who spent months trying to get back to his natural playing weight after being unable to eat solid foods initially.

Does Ward anticipate being a target Sunday?

"Each and every game I know I'm hunted," Ward told Pittsburgh reporters this week. "Each and every game I play in, I think they're hunted too. It is what it is; I'm not going to get into it with revenge factor or be scared."

Rivers fended off a flurry of questions about Ward from the media this week. He has been very careful not to give the Steelers any bulletin-board material.

"It’s over," Rivers said succinctly. "We play them again and [I want to] have a good season."

In an important game for both teams, Ward said he doesn’t believe Rivers will go out of his way to exact revenge for last year’s hit.

"If he's worried about me, he's not worried about the 10 other guys or his responsibilities," Ward said. "He's going to do his responsibility, and if I've got the ball I'm pretty sure he's going to try to take a shot on me. It's no different than if that same particular play happened again, I'm going to take my shot at him."

Expect the Bengals and Steelers to take plenty of shots in what should be a very physical game.