Tim Benz: In awful AFC, Steelers not dead yet
An interesting dynamic is brewing in the AFC.
It’s good news for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The dynamic is that, right now, most of the conference is awful.
Not just the crummy AFC North. The whole conference has been lousy so far.
It’s so bad, even at 1-3, the struggling Steelers haven’t played their way out of contention, for either a divisional crown or a wild-card slot.
In fact, a Steelers win over the Baltimore Ravens Sunday at Heinz Field — coupled with a Cleveland Browns loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night — would plop the Steelers atop the AFC North standings.
“If we want to still be in this thing, we have to control the division games,” cornerback Joe Haden said Wednesday. “This next one is a big one.”
No. It’s huge.
Last week, we outlined how the AFC has yet to produce a North Division champion with less than 10 wins. That’s never happened in the 17 years of the current playoff alignment. Also, the second wild-card team has always been at least 9-7.
Given the way this season has started, both of those precedents are in danger of falling.
We are a quarter of the way into the season, and there is no clear-cut “next-best team” in the AFC after the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots.
My head tells me it’s the Los Angeles Chargers, especially with Melvin Gordon coming back. That’s probably still true despite some important injuries out in L.A.
But the records tell me it’s the Buffalo Bills at 3-1. They are the only AFC team aside from New England and Kansas City above .500 after the league’s first month.
The whole South division is 2-2. The Browns and Ravens lead the North at 2-2. Everyone else in the conference is 2-2 or worse, as well.
Furthermore, there are four teams — the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals — who are winless.
But most in the Steelers locker room aren’t expecting the rest of the AFC to stay in a lull, waiting for them to wake up.
“Teams are bouncing back right now,” wide receiver James Washington said. “Guys are getting more comfortable at their position. You are going to see guys start to change and become more dominant.”
In Washington’s case specifically, let’s hope he’s talking about himself after getting shut out on “Monday Night Football” against the Bengals.
The split in the performances of the conferences thus far has been overwhelming, hasn’t it? If I did a power ranking — listing all the NFL teams 1-32 — I’d probably put New England first and the Chiefs second.
But then I’d write down 10 NFC teams before I got to Buffalo and the Chargers.
I’d also argue that you can list every team in the conference who is 2-2 or worse, and not a single one of them has a fanbase who is feeling good about how their team got to that mark.
Except maybe Jacksonville Jaguars fans. I’d argue that Jaguars fans have a case there. I bet if you told them they’d lose quarterback Nick Foles in the first half of the first game and still get through the first quarter of the season at 2-2 and tied for first place with Gardner Minshew at quarterback, most would take that result with a smile.
But no one else.
It’s injuries in Los Angeles with the Chargers and wild inconsistency with the Browns, Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans.
It’s defensive woes and infighting in Baltimore. It’s losing Antonio Brown in Oakland. It’s Andrew Luck retiring in Indianapolis.
So the Steelers may not be as dead on arrival as they looked upon returning home from San Francisco at 0-3.
“We’ve only played a quarter of the season,” guard David DeCastro said. “There’s a lot more football to be played.”
True. The question becomes, though, will that football be meaningful all the way through December for the Steelers?
Poor play from everyone else will only keep the Steelers afloat for so long.
There is plenty of mediocrity in the Steelers’ division. There’s even more in the rest of the AFC. I still need more convincing that the Steelers are toward the better end of that scale.
Luckily, the rest of the conference appears to be giving me more time to figure out if that’s the case.