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How NFL realignment might be the only way to end the bad blood between the Steelers and Bengals

To resolve the ongoing bad blood between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the NFL should realign its divisions.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s a cursed sentence: The AFC North looks like it might be the best top-to-bottom division in the NFL. The Ravens, who looked doomed offensively a year ago, have abruptly coalesced into a highly-efficient scoring machine, and their defense — a habitually sturdy unit — is sacking opposing quarterbacks with extraordinary and alarming regularity. The Bengals look like the same deep, well-balanced squad that won the division two years ago, and are perhaps only one ill-fated jailbreak blitz from being 5-1, mostly on the strength of numerous gutsy late-game comebacks. The Steelers finally appear to be the Steelers again and the Browns, despite their 2-3-1 record, certainly don’t resemble the same woebegone team that lost 31 combined games in the 2016 and 2017 seasons. It’s a good-looking division, one in which I’d argue there’s no clear favorite. And the league ought to blow it up. At the very least, either the Steelers or the Bengals should be sequestered to the realm of independency or transferred to another division, because their semi-annual slugfest is getting exhausting.

The teams met this past Sunday, playing to a 28-21 Steelers’ victory that was punctuated by an epic game-winning drive by Ben Roethlisberger, the 40th such drive of his career (among active players, Roethlisberger currently ranks third in game-winning drives engineered, trailing only Tom Brady and Drew Brees). But that wasn’t all. Indeed, there were intriguing storylines and cool happenings and stellar performances aplenty. Andy Dalton orchestrated a masterful late-game drive of his own, guiding the Bengals’ offense 75 yards in just over two minutes to pull ahead 21-20 with 1:18 remaining in the fourth quarter. He made throw after gorgeous throw to A.J. Green, who spent his Sunday afternoon engaged in a compelling and tightly-contested duel with career-long adversary Joe Haden. Pittsburgh’s offensive line held the Cincinnati pass-rush sackless, and third-year receiver Tyler Boyd scored a pair of touchdowns, further establishing himself as one of the best secondary receivers in the NFL and etching his name on the ever-growing wall of Pitt standouts who have achieved or are actively achieving great success in the NFL. William Jackson, the cornerback the Steelers wanted in the 2016 NFL Draft, looks like a superstar in the making, while Artie Burns, the cornerback they ended up getting, bears not even a passing resemblance to a functional professional defensive back.

You get my point. Sunday’s game was a good game. Of course, there was the requisite s%#t talking, the mild shenanigans after the whistle and — duh — the post-game controversy, this time the result of some needlessly violent and characteristically dopey thing Vontaze Burfict did on the field.

I don’t even wanna waste too much of your attention dissecting this particular play because, if you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’ve already seen it. Any one of Burfict’s manifold on-field transgressions can be viewed through the same lens, each frame carefully and meticulously scrutinized like Yinzer Zapruder film. It looks like Burfict probably lowered his shoulder and that he probably targeted Brown’s head, but I like Antonio Brown and I don’t particularly like Vontaze Burfict, so it’s difficult to offer any sort of subjective analysis.

What I do know is that, if this report indicating that Burfict pointed at JuJu Smith-Schuster—who, if you remember, did this to Burfict last season — and exclaimed “you’re next!” after hitting Brown’s head, is accurate, he should be fined (again) or suspended (again), even though I know that a) the league won’t actually do this, and b) if the league would levy some sort of punitive charge against Burfict, it would be a fruitless endeavor. We’ve read this book, and the ending never changes.

None of this is to exonerate the Steelers for their role in cultivating the wanton brutality that’s imbued this rivalry of late. Indeed, Steelers players are responsible for more than their fair share of on-field atrocities, and the Smith-Schuster hit against Burfict is just the most recent example: there was Ryan Shazier lowering his helmet against Giovani Bernard during the 2015 Wild Card game; there was Terrance Garvin ruthlessly detonating the defenseless Kevin Huber’s brainstem during a punt return; there was Hines Ward blind-siding Keith Rivers, shattering Rivers’ jaw and ending his season; there was the Carson Palmer hit. It shouldn’t be hard to find a Bengals blog that contains a more comprehensive list of slightly-less-notorious Steelers’ cheap shots. There’s no denying that both parties are culpable, and the same can be said for their fans. During the same Wild Card game in which Bernard was injured, Bengals fans threw garbage and beer at Ben Roethlisberger as he exited the field with a shoulder injury. The very next day after the JuJu hit, vendors in the Strip District began selling this shirt, which depicts Smith-Schuster standing over a motionless and concussed Burfict, with the word “Karma” looming above the now-infamous still-frame.

Unlike, say, the Steelers/Ravens rivalry, the Steelers/Bengals rivalry isn’t one rooted in mutual reverence. I’ve heard play-by-play guys and color commentators refer to the Steelers/Bengals rivalry as being “a throwback” or “old-school” or some other similarly meaningless and antiquated qualifier that’s just intended to serve as blander, more digestible nomenclature and doesn’t really aptly encapsulate what these games usually devolve into, which is mayhem. And if the NFL’s core desire is to revert back to whatever version of itself it was in 1979, this is all fine. But if the NFL is truly interested in categorically evolving the fundamental aspects of American football — and I suspect that they are, which is plainly evinced, for example, by the strides they’ve made in revising the tackle rule (the benefits conferred by this particular directive are thus far nebulous at best, but I’ll digress) — then every Steelers/Bengals matchup represents a retrograde development in achieving this end. Vontaze Burfict’s shtick might’ve flown 30 years ago, but there’s no place for it in the modern NFL, and I say that not only as a Steelers fan, but as a fan of the sport of football. That’s a shame, too, because Vontaze Burfict is, in many ways, a perfect linebacker: he can stop the run, he can cover sideline to sideline, he’s good in coverage against tight ends, he’s generally a sure tackler, his football IQ is off the charts, etc.

What do we do? Burfict has emerged as the foremost belligerent in this rivalry, so it feels like the obvious solution would be to, you know, remove him from the equation. However, if I’ve learned anything in my 20-some-odd years of existence, it’s that oftentimes the most obvious solutions are not the ones that the powers that be ultimately pursue. So, as a very labyrinthine way of solving the Steelers/Bengals problem, I’m proposing, formally, that the NFL split these teams up like a pair of schoolchildren who won’t behave. Moreover, I’m proposing a league-wide realignment, with each team being re-grouped into larger divisions. I’m therefore proposing four mega-divisions, in which each team plays its division opponent once per season but operates by way of a never-ending series of home-and-homes.

AFC East: Pittsburgh, Buffalo, New England, NY Jets, Baltimore, Tennessee, Carolina, Jacksonville

AFC West: LA Chargers, Oakland, Denver, LA Rams, Kansas City, Houston, Indianapolis, Chicago

NFC East: Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami, Cleveland, NY Giants, Tampa Bay, Atlanta

NFC West: Seattle, Arizona, San Francisco, Detroit, New Orleans, Minnesota, Green Bay, Dallas

There you have it — we’ve fixed the NFL. We’ve destroyed numerous high-profile rivalries in the process, too. Whoops. Please implement this clearly well-thought-out action plan, Commissioner Goodell. Or else just suspend Burfict, whatever works.