By PAT YASINSKAS for TonySoftli.com
The phrase “statement game’’ is used way too early and often in the National Football League.
It shouldn’t even come into play until November or December. Maybe not even that early. Maybe the use of the phrase should be put on pause until the playoffs. In normal circumstances, I think that’s about right.
But there was one game that was played outside of normal circumstances Sunday. There was one game that I truly believe was a real statement game.
That came when the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens, 26-9, and the game wasn’t even that close. This may sound like nothing outside of the ordinary. But I think it was different.
I think it was a statement game. I think the Steelers are the best team in the AFC. Heck, I’ll take it a step further and say the Steelers are the best team in football – right now. It’s a long season but, at least on Sunday, the Steelers looked like a team that can win a Super Bowl championship.
Yeah, I know Baltimore might not be great, especially after getting slaughtered by the Jacksonville Jaguars in London last week. Still, the Ravens (2-2) are no slouches. They have Joe Flacco at quarterback and a decent supporting cast around him.
That might not sound like anything special — at the moment. But let’s consider the circumstances on why this was a statement game. This was an AFC North game and Pittsburgh and Baltimore have pretty much dominated the division (with an occasion fluke year from Cincinnati) since it was formed in 2002. And Cleveland doesn’t count.
Pittsburgh and Baltimore have an intense rivalry. When I thought about rivalries Sunday, I took the easy way out at first. I thought about Green Bay and Chicago, Denver and Kansas City and Atlanta and New Orleans. They all are great rivalries. But I think Baltimore and Pittsburgh might be the most underrated rivalry in the NFL.
It’s easy. If you saw the game, you saw an intense, physical game with both teams putting everything on the line. But it’s pretty clear that Pittsburgh has the edge right now. The Steelers went into the home of their biggest rival and totally dominated.
That’s never easy, but the Steelers made it look that way. To understand the rivalry between Pittsburgh and Baltimore, you have to understand several things outside of their dominance of the division. The two cities aren’t very far apart and they each have undergone renaissances after some tough times in the 1970s and ‘80s.
They each are blue-collar towns, where football is king. I grew up in Pennsylvania and I can easily spot the difference between a Philadelphia and Pittsburgh accent. But, for the life of me, I can’t catch the difference between a Pittsburgh and Baltimore accent. They’re the same. And, in a lot of ways, so are their teams. Flacco and Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger aren’t that different. They both are very big and they are drop-back passers. Each team is physical and they both have head coaches who have been at it for a while, in Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh.
But we saw some major differences Sunday. Specifically, Pittsburgh is a much better team. With Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, I think the Steelers have the equivalent of the famous “Triplets’’ (Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin) that the Dallas Cowboys had during their dynasty in the 1990s. They might even be able to challenge Pittsburgh’s legendary offense of the 1970s with Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. And let’s not forget about a defense that forced three Baltimore turnovers on Sunday and made Flacco look pretty ordinary.
Yeah, maybe it’s a little early. But, right now, I’ll say the Steelers are the best team in the NFL.
Pat Yasinskas is currently working on his Masters of Business Administration at Saint Leo (Fla.) University and was a former full-time NFL writer for more than two decades. He is writing occasional columns for TonySoftli.com this season. Yasinskas and Softli have a long-standing professional relationship. They have know each other since 1999 when Yasinskas was covering the Carolina Panthers for The Charlotte Observer and Softli was an executive for the team. Yasinskas also has written for ESPN.com and The Tampa Tribune.