Sixteen of the last 20 AFC North titles belong to either the Pittsburgh Steelers or Baltimore Ravens. And while the Ravens remain favorites for the division crown entering the home stretch, Sunday's 41-10 Cincinnati Bengals victory over Pittsburgh confirmed that the guard is changing in one of the league's most popular divisions.
The Bengals didn't just sweep the season series from the Steelers for the first time since 2009—they did so in emphatic fashion, outscoring Pittsburgh 65-20 in their two victories. And they've now won three consecutive games against the Steelers for the first time in more than 30 years.
Pittsburgh hasn't posted a losing record in the entire Ben Roethlisberger era, which began in 2004, but that streak is very much in jeopardy for a team that has gone 0-2-1 the last three weeks to drop to 5-5-1 on the season. They're alone in last place and essentially two full games back of the Bengals. By the end of Week 12, they could be 2.5 games out of first place.
You never want to count out Mike Tomlin's team, but it's obvious the upstart Bengals are back in contention with Joe Burrow, a deep array of offensive weapons and an underrated defense in place. It's also become apparent that the Steelers are no longer a prime contender. They're just 6-10-1 in their last 17 regular-season and playoff games dating back almost a full calendar year.
The defense still has plenty of talent, and Roethlisberger still has his moments, but none of it is enough with the consistency long gone. They've now surrendered exactly 41 points in back-to-back losses. Roethlisberger had actually been performing well despite a lack of winning football, but he turned the ball over three times and posted a 65.4 passer rating in a critical spot on Sunday.
The 39-year-old was merely the league's 19th-highest-rated passer entering Sunday's dud, while the Steelers ranked in the bottom 12 in the league on both sides of the ball in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders. They don't belong in any Super Bowl conversations, and that isn't likely to change until they make significant changes in order to adapt and keep up with the always-competitive Ravens, the surging Bengals and a Cleveland Browns team that embarrassed them in Pittsburgh in last year's playoffs.
At the very least, it's now clear that Roethlisberger is running on fumes and that they won't be able to rely entirely on the defense to compensate for their shortcomings on Big Ben's side of the ball. They'll either need to commit to a rebuild ASAP or actively try to replace Roethlisberger with a difference-maker at quarterback for the 2022 season. Inaction shouldn't be a satisfactory option because this team's ceiling with Roethlisberger is nine or 10 wins and a one-and-done playoff appearance.
In Pittsburgh, that's unacceptable. It's football purgatory, and it could be especially problematic considering the state of the rest of the division.
If the Bengals have Pittsburgh's number now, imagine how much of an edge they'll have as Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase develop while Big Ben ages. The gap will grow, and the Ravens and Browns have young cores, so there's no reason to expect them to go anywhere any time soon.
Of course, this isn't just about cutting bait with Ben. The Steelers have uncharacteristically been manhandled in the trenches quite consistently, and the Bengals possessed a glaring edge up front on both sides of the ball Sunday.
To his credit, Tomlin suggested after the game that changes could be coming in that regard.
But there's only so much you can do midseason. Much of these changes will have to come in the new year after the Steelers have inevitably either missed the playoffs or lost early in the postseason, just as they did in 2020.
The good news is they're projected to have money to spend for once, and the young core is strong on defense when the injury gods are on their side. The bad news is both units are just strong enough to keep them out of prime draft positioning, even with the D ravaged by injuries.
Meanwhile, the Bengals have rebounded from a miniature midseason slump with consecutive one-sided victories against competitive teams. They've looked completely rejuvenated coming out of their Week 10 bye, and now they're in the driver's seat for a playoff berth with four home games on their six-game season-closing schedule.
Right now, objectively, you'd rather be them, the Ravens or even the Browns than the Steelers. Pittsburgh is losing ground in a division that they've won four times in the last seven years. Complacency will only exacerbate that.