A mystery wrapped up in an enigma. That’s how you might describe the AFC North this year. Before the season got underway, the Ravens were being touted as a hot ticket contender for the Super Bowl. In Cleveland, meanwhile, there was genuine optimism that with a functioning offensive unit around him Baker Mayfield could get the Browns into the playoffs once again.
Now here we are at the mid-point of the regular season and Pittsburgh are bossing not only the rest of the AFC North, but the entire league. For the opening weeks, it was easy to dismiss the phenomenon as something that would shake out one the season was properly underway. But the Week 7 matchup against what was the only other undefeated team in the league was the turning point.
The best run defense in the league faced off against a team featuring the first running back in NFL history to run for more than 200 yards in three games on the spin. Something had to give, and that something was the Tennessee running game, as they went three and out time and again.
Sitting up and taking notice
The rest is history, and when the Steelers went on to beat the Ravens 24-28 in the best match-up of Week Eight, the message started to hit home. This is a team that can take on anyone and beat anyone. Pittsburgh could just go all the way.
None of us have a crystal ball, but if you want the next best thing, the best place to look is at the sports books. These guys make a business out of predicting the future, and checking out the odds at places like this site here tells you far more than listening to former players sounding off on their weekly podcasts.
Pittsburgh started the seasons at odds of 30-1 to win the Super Bowl. Not rank long-shots, but certainly not among the favorites, and barely even in “dark horse” territory. Following their win against Baltimore, some bookies had slashed those odds all the way down to 5-1. Speaking of Baltimore, they were just 4-1 before the regular season got underway. They are still a shoe-in for a wildcard place ahead of the luckless Browns, but the odds of them going all the way have now dwindled to 8-1
Old fashioned football
So where has this success come from? The Steelers are thriving by executing the little things well. There are no big playmakers here. Ben Roethlisberger is not the quarterback he once was, but he has guile and wisdom. He doesn’t do anything stupid, he marshals his troops and he knows that if he can get 25 points on the board, the defense will do the rest. Fitzpatrick, Watt, Tuitt and Heyward do not disappoint. Again, they stick to an executable, consistent plan – and it works.
It’s old-fashioned football and it is clearly working. How long they can keep the unbeaten record going remains to be seen. But this is a team that is being taken seriously by those whose opinions matter most.