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Bengals won't be inviting Steelers for Thanksgiving any time soon

CINCINNATI -- Safety George Iloka smiled when asked if the Bengals-Steelers rivalry was akin to two siblings that fight.

Not quite, he said, but close.

"Aw, they're not brothers. It's that cousin that your parents invite over that you're not really cool with, that's what that is. They're there for Thanksgiving dinner and you're like, 'Man, why did you all invite them this year?' That type of thing," Iloka said.

That's about as fiery as it will probably get as the Bengals prepare to face the Steelers, a rival they haven't beaten in the last four tries (including playoffs). Two seasons ago, Vontaze Burfict declared he hated Pittsburgh.

Now, outside of acknowledging how big a win would be, nobody says much of anything at all.

"As we go into this game, obviously for us it’s a big football game being on the road and in the division. It’s one that can get us back to .500 on the season -- so it’s really important," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis.

Added Iloka: "This game means a lot. Let's not take that out of there -- it means a lot," he said. "We're trying to win this game like we're trying to win any other game. At the end of the year if teams are tied, those division games come into play.

"But after Sunday if you get a win, they're only going to give us one win for it, or one loss, or a tie -- which you hope it's never a tie. But you only get one or the other. It's a big game, but let's not make it more than it is."

It wasn't long ago that the rivalry was starting to boil out of control. At one point the bickering between players on social media was spilling out on the field and things were turning nasty, from pregame fights to players getting knocked out of games.

The tension boiled over during the 2015 AFC wild-card game -- a game that saw both Giovani Bernard and Antonio Brown knocked out and ended in a yelling match that involved Vontaze Burfict, Adam Jones and Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter.

Perhaps realizing that the playoff game was simultaneously hard-nose football at its best and emotions at their worst, Lewis and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin found a way to rein both teams back in. Emotion is a good thing, they acknowledged, but not if its out of control.

"We're hunting the same things. They know that," Tomlin said Wednesday. "I just think the natural evolution of us and them as teams and what we're hunting and NFL scheduling just kind of brings things together. It's not something that has to be artificially stimulated. It is what it is."

Said Lewis: "For whatever reason, there’s an excitement that builds up (for this game). We just have to stay within (ourselves) and play. We know it’s an important game for both teams.”

There were subtle things done to diffuse the situation. Lewis told his players to cool it on social media, and there was barely a peep between the two teams prior to their contests last year.

Before one game last season, coaches from both teams were walking around midfield, perhaps as a backup plan in case of another pregame fight, similar to one that occurred during the 2016 season. The games were still physical and grueling, but the nastiness of past years didn't resurface.

"At the end of the day, we're going to keep it classy," said cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. "We're going to keep it professional. But it's just one of those games. I don't want to elaborate on anything because it seems like everything gets thrown out of proportion. It's just one of those games."

Perhaps the change in tone was because the Bengals didn't have a good season last year, dropping to 6-9-1. It also could be that the rosters have changed significantly. Only 26 of the 53 Bengals players on the active roster during the last playoff game remain on the active roster now.

While some Bengals might carry the weight of those past failures, many of the young talent, like Joe Mixon and Carl Lawson, have never even played against the Steelers. For them, it's a clean slate. That didn't go unnoticed by Lewis, who had a special message for those players on Wednesday morning.

When asked what he told them, he just smiled and said he was keeping that to himself.

“I recognized those guys this morning. They all know the message," he said on Wednesday.

Added defensive coordinator Paul Guenther: "The great thing about our young guys is they just want to play ball. They love playing ball. They don’t care about where the game is at, if it’s Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, they don’t know any better, so they’re going out and playing ball and that’s how it should be."