PITTSBURGH — There is only one team that can stop the Pittsburgh Steelers from repeating as AFC North champions.
The Pittsburgh Steelers.
Barring catastrophic injury to star players, the spoiler isn’t going to come from elsewhere within the division.
Cincinnati’s also-ran status was reinforced Sunday during Pittsburgh’s 29-14 home win. Baltimore entered Week 7 with the NFL’s 31st-ranked offense and could hit rock bottom after gaining just 208 yards in a 24-16 loss at Minnesota. And Cleveland remains a winless laughingstock after a 12-9 overtime flop vs. Tennessee.
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Those defeats give the Steelers (5-2) a two-game AFC North cushion over three sub-.500 rivals. Also sporting a 3-0 AFC North record, Pittsburgh should continue to build upon what is the largest lead of any AFC division leader and begin angling for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Provided the Steelers don’t do themselves in.
On that, there is no guarantee.
Pittsburgh players have a penchant of creating their own drama that can prove detrimental to the team goals the Steelers should be focused on accomplishing.
Two weeks ago, the Steelers were 3-2 and coming off losses in two of their previous three games. A stunning 23-17 overtime road loss to previously winless Chicago was marked not only by horrible run defense, but obvious signs of overlooking an inferior foe. The same script unfolded during a 30-9 home loss to Jacksonville in Week 5.
“People are always talking about how we play down to our opponents,” Steelers safety Mike Mitchell acknowledged.
Just as notable was what had transpired off the field. Lengthy internal debate about how to handle the national anthem in light of President Donald Trump’s incendiary comments led to the Steelers focusing far too much on pre-game protocol rather than beating the Bears.
Antonio Brown threw a tantrum — and a cooler — on the sideline when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed the wide-open wide receiver on a route against the Jaguars. Roethlisberger, who started a firestorm last winter by discussing potential offseason retirement, created another stir about his commitment and performance level when he told media, “Maybe I don’t have it anymore,” following his five interceptions vs. Jacksonville.
The controversy didn’t end even when Roethlisberger and the Steelers rebounded last week with a huge win in Kansas City. That’s because media reports surfaced claiming wide receiver Martavis Bryant had demanded a trade because of his role in the offense. Bryant’s frustration continued after the Bengals win when he took a shot at fellow wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on social media before deleting the message.
All of this comes on the heels of Brown’s antics last season, when he streamed a Mike Tomlin postgame speech on Facebook that featured Pittsburgh’s head coach calling New England “a— h—s” and telling his players to stay “low-profile” in comments about the Patriots prior to the AFC title game. The incident became a week-long distraction prior to New England’s lopsided win.
Maybe these occurrences have become so frequent that Steelers players didn’t even blink while this year’s team was getting back on track. Or maybe the impact is being overblown by outsiders who don’t understand the unique locker-room dynamic that develops for every NFL team.
“We really don’t pay much attention to it,” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward told Sporting News. “We’ve got a really good group of guys. We have trust in each other.”
Added Mitchell: “Around here, it’s never really chaos. We always keep things even-keeled. We never get too high. We never get too low. We knew we needed a good response game vs. Kansas City, and we did that.”
Just how good the Steelers are — and can be with continued improvement — was on display against the Bengals.
Running back Le’Veon Bell is hitting his stride with a third-straight 100-yard rushing game. He helped Pittsburgh control the clock for 35:15 with 35 carries for 134 yards. Roethlisberger was efficient in a 224-yard, two-touchdown showing without an interception.
Defensively, the Steelers basically erased Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (three catches for 41 yards) and sacked a gimpy Andy Dalton four times, forcing two interceptions. Pittsburgh also was stout against the run for a second straight game, outside of a 25-yard Joe Mixon carry in the first quarter. Cincinnati’s other 16 rushes yielded just 46 yards.
“Our No. 1 goal was to stop the run and take away (Green),” Mitchell said. “For the most part we did that.”
Special teams did its part, too, with Chris Boswell connecting on all five of his field-goal attempts, helping to make amends for an offense still struggling to convert in the red zone. A 44-yard pass from safety Robert Golden to wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey on a fake punt helped set up one of those kicks and allowed the Steelers to run extra clock in the fourth quarter.
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Pittsburgh is tied for the AFC’s best record but is emerging as the conference’s best all-around team. The Steelers already have a playoff tiebreaker advantage over the Chiefs (5-2) and could earn the same with the Patriots (5-2) in Week 15 if they’re able to win at Heinz Field against a New England squad that will be playing its third straight road game — and on a short week, no less.
Not that Steelers right guard David DeCastro wants to hear about any of this.
Like Mitchell and Heyward, DeCastro downplayed the effect the theatrics had on the club earlier this season. He also didn’t proclaim the Steelers have figured out all their on-field issues, either.
“I don’t think it is behind,” DeCastro told Sporting News. “I hope it’s behind, but you never know. We could come out and lay an egg next week (at Detroit). I hope we don’t, but it’s possible.
“I hope people realize that. I hope they realize how hard it is to do this.”
And how much easier it would be for the Steelers without self-inflicted headaches.