The Browns defeated the Steelers twice in a season, one of those wins came in the playoffs, and it’s the start of a paradigm shift in the AFC North.
The AFC North is going to look really different in 2021. Unfortunately, no, the NFL isn’t finally going to fix the divisions (Baltimore is in the “north”? Miami’s in the “east”, Indy’s in the “south”?), no but the order in which the division looks like it’s going to change radically. The Browns are now the top dogs in the division, with Baltimore making a real case to challenge them for the throne. Cincinnati is on the come up but with Joe Borrow’s knee injury and the fact that the Bengals have had a difficult time over the years fielding a good team, third place is a fair spot. Then of course you have the Steelers, who could easily be in the bottom next year.
The Steelers no longer own the Browns. For all the trash-talking about how Ben Roethlisberger has owned the Browns, he’s never actually defeated them in the playoffs. With his huge contract next year, and the persistent rumors of retirement, the Steelers may be starting over next year. That wouldn’t be a good thing, because most of their players are hitting the wrong age.
Sure, you have Minkah Fitzpatrick, who’s good but not great, and T.J. Watt. They’re both under 27. Chase Claypool could be a good number two, maybe even a number one, but that’s really it.
James Connor isn’t the answer at running back, for all of his trash talks, JuJu Smith-Schuster was absolutely awful this year. Made worse due to the fact that both Connor and Smith-Schuester were both pegged to replace Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
That experiment failed.
Eric Ebron is a non-factor, with the exception of Chukwuma Okorafor, every one of the Steelers offensive linemen is 29 or older. Starters in the front-seven on defense also include 33-year-old Tyson Alualu and 31-year-old Cameron Heyward. Joe Haden’s getting up there in age as well, and frankly, the rest of the Steelers defense is pretty unremarkable. They’ve been able to get by due to the pressure they put on teams, but the Browns proved that the Steelers defense was no match for the Browns high-powered offense.
In back to back performances.
The Steelers are a team that will see massive turnover either this year or next, with Bud Dupree going to be a free agent this year, and Roethlisberger, Haden, Ebron, and Alualu being free agents next year.
The Browns on the other hand have most of their young talent under contract for some time, while having huge cap space, and contracts that can be reworked or gotten out of to increase their cap space.
The Browns are going to be a team that hangs around for the long term, while the Steelers may not see the lights of primetime for some time. This division will be battled over by a pair of 2018 draft picks, who represent franchises that could honestly be considered half-siblings.
The shift at the top is real. The Steelers’ time is over.
The king is dead. Long live the king.