Starkey: No explaining Steelers, AFC North
Has there ever been a Steelers team as unreadable as this? A team that shuttles from dominance to disarray and back so frequently and randomly?
It began at the beginning, which at least makes sense. Nothing else does. The Inscrutable Steelers started the season by dominating the Cleveland Browns for a half … and falling apart for a half.
They outscored the Browns, 27-3, in the first 30 minutes. The Browns outscored them 24-3 in the second 30 minutes. And with that began a roller-coaster ride from Hades …
• In a home game against woeful Tampa Bay, the Inscrutable Steelers took possession with 1:44 left and a four-point lead … and somehow lost in regulation.
• With a bitter Heinz Field crowd booing and ready to bury them, the Inscrutable Steelers, trailing the Houston Texans, 13-0, late in the first half, erupted for 24 points in 2:54. They became the first team in 12 years to score that many points that fast.
• They ended a biblical red-zone slump when their star receiver threw a touchdown pass.
• After getting sacked on three consecutive plays early in the second quarter against Baltimore, Ben Roethlisberger and his offense were the proud owners of one first down and zero points. Ten minutes later, they had 22 points, including a Brad Wing-to-Matt Spaeth conversion. Roethlisberger was not sacked on any of his other 35 dropbacks.
• The two oldest guys on defense do not miss snaps and perform like eager rookies while a pair of youthful first-round picks struggle to stay healthy.
• After registering 93 points and 12 touchdown passes against good competition (Colts, Ravens), the Inscrutable Steelers produced 13 points and one touchdown pass against one of the worst pass defenses in NFL history (the Jets’).
• The secondary improved when the $26 million cornerback was replaced by the 27-year-old Texans reject who once was rated the worst cornerback in the league.
Maybe the metaphor that best captures the Inscrutable Steelers’ perpetual state of contradiction: safety Mike Mitchell’s now-idle Twitter account, which Monday night saw Mitchell alternately tweeting Bible verses and belittlements.
One minute he was sending something from Proverbs. The next he was calling one troller “trash,” urging another to “kill yourself” and wishing yet another to “die broke.”
Happy holidays, Mike.
Mitchell’s blitz was unfolding even as LeGarrette Blount, once hailed as the perfect complement to Le’Veon Bell, was told never to come back after he walked off LP Field with time on the clock. Borrowing from Psalm 68, you might say Blount was gone like a puff of smoke.
But here’s the ultimate paradox: This wild and crazy bunch has settled down since a 31-10 loss at Cleveland. The Inscrutable Steelers are 4-1 since then and 7-4 going into the bye week, percentage points out of first place in their division and, with two games left against the Cincinnati Bengals, firmly in control of their fate.
And if you think this team is a walking contradiction, check out the rest of the insane asylum known as the AFC (All Four Crazy) North.
The Browns have already celebrated two Super Bowl wins this season. I believe they’re being fitted for rings as we speak. One problem: They’re in last place, despite a Pitt-like schedule that features every patsy this side of Akron.
Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer is fresh off a 20-for-50 debacle that looked even worse than his 16-for-41 effort against Jacksonville. The Browns welcome back All-World receiver Josh Gordon this weekend, but injuries are mounting.
It makes zero sense to bet on the Browns right now. Which, in this division, might make them the best bet of all.
The Ravens continue to be unnaturally preoccupied with the Steelers, despite the fact it was Cincinnati who won the division last season, Cincinnati who resides in first place and Cincinnati who has beaten the Ravens twice this season.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh likes to remind his team that it was built to beat the Steelers. He was caught on camera, in the locker room immediately after a win over Tennessee, informing his players that the Steelers just got their butts kicked in New Jersey.
Obsess much, John?
The Bengals are impossible to figure. Andy Dalton followed the worst game of his career (his passer rating against the Browns equaled my college grade-point average: 2.0) with the best game of his career. When healthy, they’re still the most talented team in the division. But they’re also still the Bengals. Never pick the Bengals in big spots.
Ultimately, the Inscrutable Steelers might be the most stable outfit. They might be in the best position down the stretch, too, with the pending returns of multiple defensive starters, three of five games at home, the benefits of a late bye week and the possibility that each of their remaining opponents will be playing well (which is preferable to teams playing poorly, as teams playing poorly routinely give the Steelers fits).
Way back at the beginning, which is where it all began, I thought the division would come down to Steelers-Bengals on Dec. 28 at Heinz Field. I still feel that way. Which probably means it will come down to Browns-Ravens on the same day.
Seriously, I’m out of the business of handicapping the AFC North.
A man could die broke doing that.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.