Is sports the greatest reality TV show, or what?
Seriously, if you ever thought the NFL was fixed, that thought was put to bed after the Steelers 20-13 victory over the Browns at Heinz Field on Sunday.
Yes, Devlin Hodges, the rookie quarterback nicknamed “Duck,” has a cool backstory. But he’s an undrafted free-agent out of tiny Samford who got his nickname after winning a duck-calling contest as a child. That’s the kind of backstory that isn’t going to be considered sexy by anyone outside of Pittsburgh and Steeler Nation for at least a few years—and nobody will care nationally unless Hodges establishes himself as a top-shelf quarterback.
Baker Mayfield, on the other hand, was the first-overall pick by the Browns in the 2018 NFL Draft. In addition to enormous talent, his charisma is just what the NFL wants in its next face of the league—a desire that seems to be apparent, what with Mayfield’s many endorsements in this, just his second season.
As for the Browns? What a cool story if you’re most of America. Who doesn’t love an underdog? Who doesn’t love rooting for a team that was the Siberia of the NFL for so many years?
The Browns might yet arrive as a true contender, but it doesn’t look like it will be anytime in the near future, not unless they can find a way to overcome their 5-7 record to reach the playoffs. That would require a lot of things falling their way, like, for instance, the 7-5 Steelers collapsing over the final month.
Will Pittsburgh collapse like it did a year ago, when it blew a 2.5 game lead in the AFC North over the final six weeks? Not if its defense can help it—and isn’t that the real story of the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers?
As encouraging as Hodges’ performance was on Sunday (he completed 14 of 21 passes for 212 yards, a touchdown and an interception); as extraordinary as receiver James Washington was (he turned in an Offensive Player of the Week performance, by catching four passes—including three that could only be categorized as freakishly athletic—for 111 yards and a touchdown), the true hero on Sunday was the Steelers defense.
It was the defense that limited the Browns talented offense to 279 total yards—including just 102 over its last six drives. It was the defense that harassed Mayfield all day and sacked him five times. It was the defense that came through with two key takeaways—including the game-clinching interception by cornerback (and former Brown) Joe Haden with a little over a minute left in the fourth quarter.
Yes, they may have a preseason offense with guys named Deon Cain and Kerrith Whyte Jr. joining Hodges as contributors on Sunday, but they now have a Super Bowl defense.
The Steelers may not have any stars on offense, but they have them in abundance on defense.
And isn’t that what championship organizations do, they find a way to stay relevant when circumstances suggest that their time may have come and gone? They find a way to adapt and stay in the fight?
The Steelers haven’t won a title in over a decade, but they’re still trying to achieve that goal in 2019, even if it means doing it without an All-Pro-ladened offense.
And that's why they're a franchise that is held in such high esteem.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, their good name has been dragged through the mud often in 2019, especially the past two weeks, thanks to unfounded and unprovable allegations made by Browns star defender, Myles Garrett.
They may never admit it, but you know the Steelers—from their players, to their coaches, to their front office, to their owners—were feeling the sting of what happened on November 14, when the Browns not only out-shined the Steelers on the field, they seemed to gain a lot of national support in the aftermath of the brawl involving Mason Rudolph and Garrett.
And while, again, they may never admit it, you know the Steelers took great pride in what they accomplished on Sunday.
The Steelers earned some validation off the field back in September thanks to the continued antics of Antonio Brown, both in Oakland and in New England. And on Sunday, they earned some validation on the field by reminding the Browns where they still stand in the AFC North hierarchy.
The Steelers may be compromised on offense. The Steelers may still miss the playoffs before all is said and done. But the Steelers are still a championship organization, and on Sunday they showed the Browns that, while they may have made strides in certain areas in recent years, they still have a ways to go before they, or anyone else, can claim that they've truly arrived as an organization.