Kevin Gorman’s Who runs the North?: Steelers-Browns rematch makes this race interesting |
Kevin Gorman, Columnist

Kevin Gorman’s Who runs the North?: Steelers-Browns rematch makes this race interesting

Kevin Gorman
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, right, is tackled by Los Angeles Rams defensive end Dante Fowler during the second half of an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Los Angeles.

There is a drastic difference between first place and last place in the AFC North, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are strangely somewhere in-between.

As Lamar Jackson leads the Baltimore Ravens with one record-setting performance after another – and his Monday Night Football debut was a personal showcase for the MVP frontrunner – the Cincinnati Bengals benched rookie quarterback Ryan Finley for Andy Dalton after setting a record for the worst start in franchise history.

And, in barely beating the Bengals, the Steelers benched second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph for a backup who didn’t make the final cut out of training camp.

Somehow, the Steelers are in second place in the division and positioned for the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs. They might be closer to the top in the standings but their performance the past two weeks more closely resembles that of a last-place team.

That could change come Sunday, when the Steelers play the surging Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field. Their rivalry is reborn, in the ugliest of ways. The brawl in the final seconds of the Browns’ 21-7 victory over the Steelers on Nov. 14 remains an open wound, and this game is like peeling off a Band-Aid.

Then again, the Browns will be without star defensive end Myles Garrett, who is suspended indefinitely for hitting Rudolph in the head with his own helmet. Maurkice Pouncey also will miss the Browns game, while serving the second game of his two-game suspension. (Rudolph also could be sitting this one out, as well, if Mike Tomlin elects to start Devlin Hodges).

So, this is like a highly anticipated heavyweight rematch, minus the heavyweights. We’ll have to settle for Baker and Duck. Middleweights make for more exciting fights, anyway.

Baltimore became the first team in league history to win back-to-back games against teams with winning records by 34-plus points. Barring a complete breakdown, the Ravens (9-2) will run away with the division title.

That has taken the drama out the AFC North race – and this weekly column, for that matter – but the battle for second place is as intriguing as any NFL division. (The Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans are both 6-5 and tied for second place in the AFC South, but they are only a game behind the Houston Texans (7-4) so that division race remains a fight for first place more so than second).

If the Browns beat the Steelers, they will be tied for second with matching 6-6 records. The Browns, however, will own the head-to-head tiebreaker with a season sweep.

Then again, the Browns haven’t swept the Steelers since 1988. But they are riding a three-game winning streak and enter the week as a one-point favorite. The AFC North race – and this column – just got a lot more interesting.

At least, we hope so.

Baltimore Ravens

Result: Beat the Los Angeles Rams, 45-6.

Highlights: Lamar Jackson completed 15 of 20 passes for 169 yards and five touchdowns (for a 139.4 passer rating and a 99.7 QB rating) and rushed for 95 yards on eight carries, becoming the first player in NFL history to throw four touchdown passes and rush for 50-plus yards in consecutive games. Jackson’s passing overshadowed a dominant rushing performance by the Ravens, who outgained the Rams, 285-22.

Lowlights: Matt Skura, who had started 29 consecutive games at center, was taken off the field on a cart with a knee sprain and did not return. Rookie Patrick Mekari replaced him. The Ravens have had the same starting offensive line all season.

Next: The Ravens (9-2) play host to the San Francisco 49ers (10-1) on Sunday.

Cincinnati Bengals

Result: Lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 16-10.

Highlights: After being targeted only three times against Oakland, receiver Tyler Boyd made a spectacular one-handed catch on his left shoulder pad for a 47-yard gain, then followed with a 15-yard touchdown catch on the next play.Boyd had five catches (on eight targets) for 101 yards and the touchdown.

Lowlights: Boyd almost played the hero when he caught a 22-yard pass from Finley at the Steelers’ 8, but lost a fumble in the red zone when Steelers linebacker Devin Bush punched the ball loose from behind. The Steelers recovered and kicked a field goal to seal the victory.

Next: The Bengals (0-11) play host to the New York Jets (4-7) on Sunday.

Cleveland Browns

Result: Beat the Miami Dolphins, 41-24.

Highlights: Jarvis Landry had 10 catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns against his former team, and has caught scoring passes in four consecutive games.

Lowlights: Baker Mayfield completed 24 of 34 passes for 327 yards, including a touchdown pass to Odell Beckham Jr., but threw his first interception in four weeks.

Next: The Browns (5-6) play at the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) on Sunday.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Result: Beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 16-10.

Highlights: Despite playing without James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers rushed for a season-high 160 yards as rookie Benny Snell ran for a career-high 98 yards. Snell’s 21-yard run in the fourth quarter put the finishing touch on the win.

Lowlights: After drawing national attention for both the fight with Garrett and accusations that he used a racial slur, Rudolph struggled before being pulled in favor of Hodges in the third quarter, completing 8 of 16 passes for 85 yards with an interception. He also drew an intentional grounding penalty and was sacked for a 13-yard loss.

Next: The Steelers (6-5) play host to the Cleveland Browns (5-6) on Sunday.

Hey, Steelers Nation, get the latest news about the Pittsburgh Steelers here.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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