A lot has changed for the Pittsburgh Steelers since they were crushed by the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game during the 2016 NFL season.
The Steelers lost at home to a Blake Bortles-led Jacksonville Jaguars team in the Divisional Round of the playoffs in the 2017 campaign, and they didn't even quality for the playoffs last season.
Pittsburgh will look much different next season without its two best players: running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Bell is a free agent after sitting out the entire 2018 campaign, and Brown reportedly was traded to the Oakland Raiders on Saturday night for an underwhelming package of draft picks.
All of these moves beg the question: are the Steelers no longer a real threat to the Patriots in the AFC?
You might be thinking: were they even a threat to begin with? Well, the Steelers did defeat the Patriots last season and should've have beaten them in the 2017 campaign, too, if not for a late-game meltdown and an overturned Jesse James catch.
Losing two superstar players on offense should be tough to overcome. The Steelers had the sixth-highest scoring offense last year, and Brown was a huge part of that with 104 receptions for 1,297 yards and a league-leading 15 touchdowns. Pittsburgh, without Bell, also ranked 31st in rushing yards per game.
Replacing Brown is made tougher by the fact the Steelers are getting very little salary cap relief from the reported trade.
Antonio Brown will now count more against the Steelers cap while not playing for them ($21.12M) than any other WR will count for his own team in 2019.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) March 10, 2019
The Steelers enter the upcoming season with a 37-year-old quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, who has a lengthy history of injuries, leading an offense with no premier running back and only one top-tier wide receiver in JuJu Smith-Schuster (who's going to receive a lot of double teams). Pittsburgh's defense also was suspect in 2018 (16th in points allowed), and the kicking game was a total disaster (second-worst field goal percentage). Mike Tomlin's coaching decisions also don't inspire a ton of confidence. And let's not forget the AFC North division is a lot tougher than it used to be for the Steelers, thanks to the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens once again being playoff contenders.
The Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs now are the undisputed cream of the crop in the AFC, and no other team really is too close. Sure, the Los Angeles Chargers should again be very good, but does anyone believe Philip Rivers is capable of playoff success? The Houston Texans typically impress in the regular season before folding when January arrives.
The Steelers and Patriots had a lot of memorable battles in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era, including three AFC title game matchups and many exciting regular-season showdowns. Unfortunately for fans of that rivalry, it's unlikely any more high stakes games will be played between Brady and Roethlisberger. It's just another example of the Patriots dynasty outlasting a rival team's championship window.
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