The easy reaction is to roll on the floor laughing hysterically at (to paraphrase the now relevant Joey Porter) Cleveland's sorrows. But taking a longer and more sober view, there is a problem here for the Steelers. Bob Labriola mentioned this during the wrap up and evaluation of Seattle's victory in the Super Bowl; the tendency of championship teams to come from highly competitive situations either on the divisional or conference level.
Our natural inclination would be to feel good about a smooth and easy path to the Super Bowl, but the question must be asked; does a weakened AFC North undermine Pittsburgh's chances for a seventh Lombardi?
There is plenty of evidence that would suggest that the crucible of having to survive strong divisional play is the best preparation for winning pro football's ultimate prize, while relatively weak competition deceptively inflates records and reputation and does not adequately prepare a team for having to survive the inevitable punch in the mouth that they must endure and overcome in order to take those final steps to the top of the mountain.
The Seahawks would be a perfect example of this theory. Until Richard Sherman's big play in the final seconds, there were plenty who believed that it would be San Francisco that would be representing the NFC in the Super Bowl. And despite all the conversation about Seattle's dominance it is not at all unreasonable to that, Super Bowl hangover or not, they may not be able to get past the Niners next season. They certainly aren't crapping their pants in San Francisco at the prospect of getting two or three shots at knocking off the Seahawks in 2014.
Before they defeated the Steelers in the Super Bowl Aaron Rodgers and the Packers had to first get past division rival Chicago in the NFCCG. The New York Giants were humbled in divisional play during both of their recent championships runs, but survived, and in part because of their modest records, surprised in having the iron to win conference championships on the road and taking down the Patriots twice in the Super Bowl.
But we need to go no further than our own experience and history to make the point. In the 1970's while teams like the Minnesota Vikings were cruising through weak divisions only to lay an egg four times in the ultimate game, Pittsburgh had to fight their way past Ken Stabler and the Oakland Raiders, Earl Campbell and the Houston Oilers, and Ken Anderson and the Bengals. Surviving that and then playing the likes of Roger Staubach and the Cowboys was just another day at the office. And, of course, consider the debt we owe Ray Lewis and the Ravens (and them us). There are benefits to surviving the hell of having go through Baltimore two, and occasionally three times just to get the opportunity to play for a championship.
By contrast, how has playing in a weak AFC East served New England? A really weak division pretty much guarantees a 6-0 record before the conversation even begins in earnest and someone wants to essentially hand you the Lombardi Trophy before the season is over. This may be one explanation why high seeds have a relatively poor track record in actually winning championships. The stellar record comes as a result of weak competition, and that weak competition then serves to make you weak. How sharp does one's game have to be to beat Miami?
So, let's take Denver, a team like the 70's Vikings that plays in a weak division and enjoys a bizarre home field advantage. (Denver plays at altitude, Pittsburgh starts off scratching Ryan Clark from the lineup every time they go there. Minnesota played outdoors in what was in essence a freezer in December. The Super Bowl isn't played at altitude.) The last team standing from their division was a Chargers squad that almost didn't make the playoffs because they had to go to overtime and get help from the officials to beat Kansas City's scrubs at home. The Chiefs had checked out in the Wild Card round. How did that serve the Broncos?
This brings us to Cincinnati. The Bengals were the beneficiaries of being in a division where the Steelers and Ravens had more or less exhausted themselves after year after year of excellence. I remember watching with a group of fans in horror as Andy Dalton tried to give the final game of the season to the Ravens with four interceptions. And remember as well that Sunday night when they came to Pittsburgh and got pimp slapped (by Terence Garvin of all people. I mean, really, before that night who the hell was Terence Garvin? They made him a star.) In a normal year that team would have either learned to grow a pair or they would have likely gone 0-4 against Pittsburgh and Baltimore combined (plus whatever Cleveland could have managed) and probably have been out of the playoff picture. Instead they play a home playoff game against the punk ass Chargers who were only in the playoffs because of Ryan Succop and playing in the Eastern time zone where they are the least effective and go belly up in what was the least competitive game in the Wild Card round. An embarrassment for the AFC North.
Here's the notion that we have to resist; that a weakened AFC North is a good thing for Pittsburgh. Its tempting. Who are you afraid of in this division? Right now the answer would be no one. That would bode well for our playoff chances, right? Well, yeah, that is if the only goal is to simply make the playoffs. But then what? Get prison raped by Seattle, San Francisco, or (God forbid) Indianapolis? I think I know you guys well enough that you would have a bit of problem with that. So, the Stairway to Seven does not just mean that the Steelers have considerable work to do in getting our own house in order. (At this point couldn't we concoct some sort of competition that would just involve the coaching staffs? A bar fight? Jeopardy? Counting Super Bowl rings or Hall of Famers? We'd win that sucker easy) What we also need is for the Browns to wipe off the pancake makeup and put the clown car away, for Ozzie Newsome and company to do what they do best which is to pattern themselves after us and then move heaven and earth to try to kill us. And the Bengals just need to ...damn; get some pride. Then whomever comes out of the division, and I still like our chances under any circumstance, will have a great shot at getting to the top.