AFC North is a Muddled Division where even the Depleted Steelers have Hope

by Jordy McElroy

After a 27-3 blowout victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in front of a primetime audience on Monday Night Football, a wave of a heartbeat emerged on the electrocardiogram machine hooked to the declining Pittsburgh Steelers.

A tremendous defensive effort coupled with an efficient performance by second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph has given the Steelers hope of a fighting chance in the AFC North.

Yes, hope still exists for the team that lost their starting quarterback, running back and No. 1 receiver in the same year.

Just look at all of the uncertainty surrounding the division. The Bengals are currently rivaling the Miami Dolphins as the worst team in the league. All of the offseason hype surrounding the Cleveland Browns was clearly premature, and they look more like a Jekyll-and-Hyde team finding its way rather than a 2019 Super Bowl contender.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens and their vaunted defense gave up 33-plus points in back-to-back losses to the Browns and Kansas City Chiefs. Their only other victories came against the Dolphins and fighting tooth-and-nail to survive a home game with the winless Arizona Cardinals.

The Steelers, on the other hand, got blown out on the road by the defending champion New England Patriots, lost by two points to the Seattle Seahawks and came within a touchdown of beating the undefeated San Francisco 49ers in their backup quarterback’s first legitimate start in the NFL.

Things aren’t necessarily ideal in Pittsburgh, but they could certainly be much worse.

Some might scoff at the Steelers getting credit for beating the walking disaster Bengals, but it wouldn’t be any different than crowning the Ravens as contenders after wins over the Dolphins and Cardinals. The Steelers can’t control the opponents on their schedule, but when faced with a team they should have beaten, they did so in dominant fashion with great complimentary football.

More importantly, however, they got back to playing good defense, which was the root of the championship culture in Pittsburgh long before legendary quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made offense the focal point. They held the Bengals to 175 total yards of offense, while also compiling eight sacks and 12 quarterback hits on Andy Dalton. It was complete dominance from start to finish.

On offense, Rudolph took whatever the defense gave him and avoided forcing bad throws downfield. He finished the game going 24-of-28 passing for 229 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The latter statistic is the most important for the Steelers in a season where they’re forced to lean on their defense and playing mistake-free football to win games.

Is it really that far-fetched to think a motivated Steelers team could upset the Ravens at home on Sunday and turn the entire AFC North division on its head?

The Ravens and Browns are both being led by young quarterbacks with plenty of room for growth. So there will be many ups and downs as they both work their way through their first official season as starters. While the Steelers are no longer the favorites to win the division, they also aren’t quite out of the race just yet.

By beating the Bengals, they’ve given themselves an opportunity to build some legitimate momentum ahead of a much-anticipated showdown with the Ravens. The Steelers defense is going to steadily improve as the season goes on, and Rudolph will continue to build more confidence behind center. They don’t need him to be the next Roethlisberger.

If he can effectively manage games and the defense plays consistently, previously distraught Steelers fans may have to cancel the funeral in Pittsburgh. 

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