With Steelers in turmoil, the Ravens and Browns are positioned to inherit AFC North
The Pittsburgh Steelers could do nothing as they watched their last hope for a playoff berth drift into the ether Sunday night. The Indianapolis Colts, once a team marooned at 1-5, toppled the Tennessee Titans to secure the AFC’s final wild-card berth and officially end Pittsburgh’s season. For the first time in five years, the NFL postseason would not include the Steelers.
But the elimination proved to be just the tip of the iceberg. On the same day the Steelers’ season ended, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on star wideout Antonio Brown’s erratic behavior. Brown, officially unable to practice or play in Week 17 due to a knee injury, had actually elected to sit out after a dispute with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. According to the report, Brown heaved a football at Roethlisberger during a walk-through and left the field in disgust. Further reports indicate that wide receiver screamed “I’m done” as he exited, an act read by some as a trade demand.
At his end-of-season press conference, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin denied that Brown demanded a trade. However, when asked if he thought the wideout had quit on the Steelers, Tomlin responded, “you can call it what you want to call it.”
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Successful teams like occasionally endure disappointing seasons, and drama surrounding a superstar receiver hardly classifies as uncharted territory. However, the Steelers’ myriad issues paint a picture of a team in steep decline when considering in the aggregate.
Since realignment in 2002, the path to the AFC North crown has run primarily through Pittsburgh. The Steelers won the division eight times, finishing second on five other occasions. While their divisional rivals have enjoyed some modicum of success during that stretch, none have come close to matching their consistency or peaks.
But that era of dominance appears to be coming to a close. Roethlisberger turns 37 in March and has publicly flirted with retirement in recent years. The quarterback’s play fluctuated more than ever in 2018, peaking with a “perfect” game against the Carolina Panthers in early November and concluding with nine interceptions in the seven games he appeared in since. While Big Ben will probably return for another run, his career doesn’t have many chapters left.
And Roethlisberger’s weapons might soon leave Pittsburgh as well. Whether or not Brown demanded a trade, NFL Network reports that the Steelers will likely consider shipping him out of town. In the backfield, Le’Veon Bell served as the third component of the Steelers’ triplets since joining the team in 2013, but he stamped his ticket out of town after sitting out the entire 2018 season. Even with young talent such as JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner offering some hope for the future, Pittsburgh’s future hasn’t seemed so uncertain since Kordell Stewart roamed the sidelines.
And for two of the other teams in the division, the Steelers’ decline comes as a particularly opportune moment. Both the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens drafted quarterbacks in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft — Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson respectively — and saw significant boosts to their fortunes. Mayfield guided the Browns to more wins than they had in the previous three years combined. Meanwhile, Jackson jumpstarted a moribund Ravens offense down after taking over for Joe Flacco and helped secure a division title.
In Mayfield and Jackson, the AFC North has a new identity. Mayfield will most likely win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors next month while Jackson has the perhaps the highest upside of any signal-caller of recent vintage. Mayfield’s presence might single-handedly make the Browns’ head-coaching vacancy the most attractive such job available. Jackson’s otherworldly gifts likely saved the job of John Harbaugh, whose name frequented many hot-seat discussions until late December.
And both teams also have a wide array of talent outside the quarterback position. Baltimore possesses the best defense in the conference, a unit headlined by Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley and guided by talented defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. In Cleveland, the Browns have a nucleus that includes former No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett, gifted cover man Denzel Ward, and near-1,000-yard rusher Nick Chubb. Both teams need to add to their cores, but they seem well positioned to inherit Pittsburgh’s throne.
When this era of Steelers football finally comes to a close, the NFL should see a great, renewed rivalry between the Ravens and Browns. The franchises have deep connections stemming from Art Modell, and both have overlapping bright futures for the first time in well over a decade. Not only could the rivalry come to define the AFC North, but it could also become the marquee attraction across the entire league.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He has bylines at NFL.com, SB Nation, Sports Illustrated, and other outlets.