Tim Benz: Steelers’ only hope? That AFC North teams stink worse than they do
It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention.
That appears to be especially true if you are inventing optimism.
For the most part, that’s what is happening within the Pittsburgh Steelers fan base in 2019, and even within the locker room.
In a town that lives, breathes, and eats football, giving up on a season in September is too harsh of a concept for us to grasp in Pittsburgh.
Inventing optimism is what we must do to get through autumn. Let’s come up with something. At least until the Steelers are mathematically eliminated, right?
The easy answer is, “Maybe the rest of the division stinks as badly as the Steelers do.”
Yup! Let’s roll with that.
The Cincinnati Bengals come to Heinz Field Monday night as the Week 4 opponent. They are also 0-3. Plus, Cincy got pummeled 41-17 at home against the San Francisco 49ers two weeks ago. Meanwhile, the Steelers traveled out to California and hung around with the 49ers until late in the fourth quarter before losing 24-20 last Sunday.
“It’s too early to look at Cincinnati,” linebacker T.J. Watt said Tuesday. “We are focused on ourselves right now. We are 0-3. We are not in any place where we can look ahead. We’ve got to look right now at who we are.”
Sorry, T.J. I think I may be talking myself into something here. At this rate, it may be easier to poke holes in AFC North rivals than it is to make me believe the Steelers can put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Plus, I’ve heard that “clean up our own backyard” speech a few times on the South Side already this year. It doesn’t seem to be working. So let’s look over our fences into Ohio and Maryland to see how messy their yards are, too.
Not only are the Bengals in dire straits, but the Cleveland Browns are stumbling as well. The difference is that most anticipated Cincinnati to be a bottom-five franchise in the NFL, whereas the Browns were predicted by many — myself included — to have a breakout season in 2019.
Those of us who made that prediction been wrong so far.
The Browns are 1-2. They got trounced 43-13 at home against a Tennessee Titans team that has gone on to lose its next two games. Cleveland’s lone win was against the pathetic 0-3 New York Jets.
Cleveland has been guilty of 35 penalties, tied with Atlanta for most in the NFL. Like the Bengals, Cleveland has allowed 11 sacks, tied for seventh-most in football. And their 49 points tie them with the Steelers for 27th place in the league.
The fly in the ointment is the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens were excellent beating two non-playoff teams from a year ago in the Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals by a combined score of 82-27.
Then, last Sunday, the Ravens went to Kansas City and challenged the defending AFC West champion Chiefs until the end, before falling 33-28. I find myself more convinced of their talents after that loss than I was after their beatdowns of those two lesser teams.
By the way, after the Bengals game on Monday, the Steelers host Baltimore on Oct. 6.
Huh. So maybe this plan of mine wasn’t such a good idea to investigate after all, especially since history isn’t on Pittsburgh’s side.
The Steelers have never made the playoffs after an 0-3 start. Even if the division is bad, this year’s edition of the Steelers will probably have to go at least 9-4 the rest of the way to make the playoffs at 9-7 as a wild card.
Since its creation in 2002, no team has won the AFC North with a record worse than 10-6.
Consider these other numbers. The current playoff format has been in place for 17 seasons. In 11 of those seasons, the last AFC wild-card team into the postseason needed at least 10 wins.
Furthermore, there has never been an AFC playoff team with fewer than eight wins since that 2002 bracket was created. Just twice has an AFC division winner been 8-8, and every AFC wild-card team has been at least 9-7. Two NFC teams — the 2010 Seattle Seahawks and 2014 Carolina Panthers — earned playoff berths with fewer than eight victories, winning remarkably weak divisions.
That last time the Steelers franchise started 0-3 was in 2013. They began that year 0-4 but finished 8-8 and would’ve made the playoffs if this didn’t happen.
That kick would’ve gotten the Steelers in the playoff tree as a rare 8-8 AFC wild card that season, not a division champ. But they did go 4-2 versus the AFC North that year as the Bengals won the division at 11-5. The Ravens also finished 8-8 and the doormat Browns were 4-12.
Therefore, theoretically, there’s hope. The difference being, of course, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 4,261 yards that year and Antonio Brown had 1,499 receiving yards.
Not to go all Rick Pitino, but “those guys aren’t walking through that door” at Heinz Field this season.
“These next two weeks are very important,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “The road is right in front of us. It’s not like we hope and pray to have somebody do it for us. We play each team twice in our division. And we can gain ground that way.”
There’s a lot to be gained already. But that it is the way to do it.
Not only is taking that road necessary to encourage optimism within the fan base, but it also is necessary to avoid elimination before December.