From 1991 until 1994, I beat my friend Kenny McCrystal 27 consecutive times playing one-on-one hoops, either in his driveway or mine, although usually his because he had a square glass backboard, and I had the fiberglass kind with the old-school shape, which made the McCrystal residence the go-to for our one-on-one battles. Plus, his house had a pool and mine had, well, nothing.
Anyway, it was a winning streak that defied logic. Neither of of us were particularly good basketball players, although we were both on organized teams, and we ultimately played on the same high school team. He started often, and I usually
came off sat on the bench. Neither of us were without value to our teams, but college recruiters weren't exactly gathering intel on us either. We did love to play, though, and we did have some pretty epic driveway battles during a streak that started when we were in eighth grade and continued through our junior years of high school. But I always won. Every. Single. Time.
Sometimes decisively, but usually in close, hotly-contested affairs, and sometimes things would just happen that no one could've ever predicted. Once, I overcame a 13-2 deficit by channeling mid-90s Reggie Miller and draining absurdly deep threes. There was a time when I'd developed a nice little move where I'd back him down, pivot toward the "paint" before doing a lefty-dribble back toward the baseline, switching hands, and laying the ball in that he had no answer for. And over time, I learned how to force him into tough shots from uncomfortable angles, and I even developed a little bit of a gift for talking some mid-90s white guy trash.
And I'd always pounce on his mistakes. Sometimes, he'd be in control of the game and then dribble the ball of his foot or something, or he'd fail to closeout after one of my misses and I'd get cheap points on the offensive glass. Occasionally, he'd get really pissed and try a straight-line drive at the hoop but lose control of the ball with no chance of recovering as I'd calmly take it away, run back to the top of the key, and drain a shot. I had his number, even if I rarely beat anyone else when we dared ventured off of our driveways to go play against kids who had actual skills.
It got to be a thing, me beating Kenny. Didn't matter where we played or when, he simply could not beat me. He knew it. I knew it. Our friends we annoyed by telling them about our little rivalry knew it. No matter what, I'd find a way to win, and more often Kenny would find a way to lose. This was an unavoidable, timeless truth that he simply could never avoid, as hard as he tried to.
And even after life took us to different places before we graduated from high school, a reunion game took place a year or two after I'd graduated from college.
I won 21-12 to make it 28 straight.
I was to Kenny then what the Steelers are now to the Bengals.
You can approach the latest installment of Pittsburgh v. Cincinnati and apply degrees of logic, while attempting to view the tilt solely through the prism of things like matchups, tendencies, and where one team might be able to expose the other's weakness. If you do that, there is a pathway that leads you to believing that the Bengals can win, and maybe even that they will. The Steelers have a shaky secondary, they have a quarterback who's looked old and stiff at times, and for all of their explosiveness on offense, there's still reasons to believe that the Bengals will round into form defensively, especially with Vontaze Burfict returning. Geno Atkins is playing the best ball of his career, and maybe things started to turn for the better last week for the secondary. Pittsburgh is without Le'Veon Bell, who has torched the Bengals in the last the last three meetings, and as much as TJ Watt's performance against Atlanta last week was both scary and impressive, this Pittsburgh defense doesn't have the intimidation level that for so long was associated with the Steelers.
Through five weeks, the Bengals have played like the better team, and top to bottom right now, they look like the better team. Andy Dalton is playing differently and more confidently than he ever has, and even if injuries have cut into their wealth of weapons, he has an established pair of wideouts he can count on. They've played with discipline, and in moments that have demanded they be at their best, they've delivered.
The Steelers have been uneven, inconsistent, and even if they've rallied to have as many wins as they do losses, their season has been defined by things like dysfunction and chaos, two words usually associated with this Sunday's home team.
Yes, logically, I think the Bengals can win. Should win even.
But just as every one-on-one tilt between me and Kenny carried with it a sense of inevitability that no matter what logic dictated, he'd find a way to lose, every Bengals/Steelers game is surrounded by a vibe that suggests that regardless of whatever things might suggest the Bengals will win, they won't. It's the Bengals. It's the Steelers. One has the other in its collective heads. One will do just enough to not win. The other will laugh its continued good fortune at the hands of the other.
I don't play hoops that often, but if Kenny and I stepped out onto the pavement today, I'd find a way to win.
When the Bengals and Steelers meet on Sunday, the Bengals will find a way to lose.
My guess is, wrong.
I don't feel emphatically good about this guess, and it is really just a guess, but that pathway that leads me to believing the Bengals will win includes Joe Mixon getting plenty of touches and finding success against a defense that's average all across the board. It includes the Bengals pass rush forcing enough Roethlisberger mistakes. And it includes the league's most penalized team trying to bait Bengals players into doing something dumb, with me doing what I shouldn't and buying that Marvin Lewis' 16th Bengals game is one of his more mature and buttoned-up.
I can't exactly pound the table and yell and scream that the Bengals are going to win, but if forced to guess, I'll guess that they can do what Kenny McCrystal never could, and never will.
Bengals 27 Steelers 24 (Cincinnati -2)
THERE ARE OTHER GAMES
In order of confidence....
Chargers (-1) over Cleveland. People are sleeping on the Chargers, a team whose played the best two teams in the league. The Browns' secondary is getting there. It isn't there yet. And Philip Rivers > Baker Mayfield.
Jacksonville (-3) over Dallas. America's Team is also America's most boring team.
Chicago (-3) over Miami. Is anyone going to actually say that the Bears are good? Someone should.
Green Bay (-9.5) over San Francisco. I can't believe this isn't a double-digit spread.
Rams (-7) over Denver. This number seems low, even with the injuries LA has at wideout. Denver's defense is living on its reputation.
New England (-3.5) over Kansas City. If only Pat Mahomes played defense.
Philadelphia (-2) over Giants. By the time you read this, this game will have been played.
Minnesota (-10.5) over Arizona. As my friend James Rapien would say, I'll buy your Vikings stock.
Tennessee (+3) over Baltimore. Hey look, I took an underdog.
Buffalo (+10) over Houston. Woof.
Indy (+2.5) over Jets. The Colts got a moral victory last week. They get a real one this week.
Atlanta (-3.5) over Tampa Bay. And, whatever it is, the over.
Seattle (-2.5) over Oakland. Two lousy teams playing eight time zones from home. Should be a great game.
Carolina (-1) over Washington. This week's Twitter beef reminded me that Josh Norman is still in the league.
NO, I DIDN'T FORGET
Ohio State (-29.5) over Minnesota. Are people still in love with that PJ Fleck guy?
Kent State (+11) over Miami. Sure, man.
Indiana (+6) over Iowa
SPEND IT ALL IN ONE PLACE
USF (-7) over Tulsa.
Duke (+3) over Georgia Tech.
Iowa State (+6.5) over West Virginia.
Florida (-7) over Vanderbilt
USC (-7) over Colorado.
Enjoy your weekend. Hi Kenny!