Preston: AFC North hierarchy might be shifting, but don't count out Ravens and Steelers just yet

It seems as if it is only a matter of time before the Cleveland Browns are anointed AFC North champions, but never count out the Pittsburgh Steelers despite all the drama surrounding the team.

The Browns have stockpiled a bunch of talent, both young and old, but the Steelers have 47-year-old coach Mike Tomlin. He isn’t great, but good enough to have won a Super Bowl title and compile a 125-66-1 record in 12 seasons in Pittsburgh.


Tomlin’s fiery disposition is very similar to Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s, which is why when things aren’t going well, they are at their best. Go ahead, anoint the Cleveland Clowns early, but the Browns’ Freddie Kitchens is only a rookie head coach.

Tomlin and Harbaugh have been in this game for a long time, and they know how to win, but more importantly, how to survive.


There has been speculation Tomlin will need to save his job in 2019 after Pittsburgh jumped out to a 7-2-1 start last season but went 2-4 down the stretch and failed to make the playoffs. Disgruntled superstar running back Le’Veon Bell sat out the 2018 season in a contract dispute, and wide receiver Antonio Brown didn’t play in the final game because of a violation of team rules. This offseason, Bell signed with the New York Jets as a free agent and Brown was traded to the Oakland Raiders, leaving Tomlin in a bind.

Plus, there have been reports about the special treatment allotted to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which helped force out Bell and Brown. That only adds to the speculation that Tomlin can’t overcome all the team turmoil.

We’ve seen this story play out in Baltimore during the past two or three seasons with Harbaugh, who was given a contract extension at the end of the 2018 campaign. The Ravens have never had as much offensive talent as Bell and Brown, and they’ve never lost as much in one offseason. But the odds weren’t in Harbaugh’s favor last season, either, especially when quarterback Joe Flacco went down with a hip injury in Week 9.

But Harbaugh survived, which is why there would be no surprise if Tomlin wins in Pittsburgh this season.

Neither coach is great at devising schemes the way Gary Kubiak does on offense and Bill Belichick on defense, but that’s only part of overall responsibilities of a head coach. Both Tomlin and Harbaugh are organized and believe in the team concept. They have a way of rallying, even when it appears there is little or no hope. They don’t quit. They won’t die. They have a way of coming up with these themes and getting their players to continue to play hard.

Just look at last season, when Harbaugh started rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson. There are still some critics that won’t give Harbaugh credit and say he stumbled into Jackson, but he used his resources to win six of the last eight games. That’s what good coaches do. That’s why he and Tomlin can never be counted out.

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A few years ago, the Ravens were facing the Steelers in a nationally televised game, and as the players were coming down the tunnel to the field, Tomlin was leading the way shadow boxing. That has to excite players. Even when Tomlin tried to trip Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones on a kick return down the sideline on Thanksgiving Day in 2013, it showed his intensity and desire to win, even though it cost him $100,000.

Harbaugh has similar intensity. It’s a serious look. Tomlin’s game face is scary at times. That guy can look through you with those deep, penetrating eyes.


Through the years, the Steelers have been one of the best franchises in the NFL, and they always seem to find talent. Without Bell last season, James Conner rushed for 973 yards on 215 carries and had 12 rushing touchdowns. Brown was supposed to be Pittsburgh’s top receiver last season, and maybe he was with 104 catches for 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns, but where did this kid JuJu Smith-Schuster from? He was voted the team Most Valuable Player after finishing 2018 with 111 catches for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns.

That’s the Steelers.

They still have Roethlisberger. He continues to be criticized, but Roethlisberger is a winner. Quarterbacks run the huddle and the offense. The great ones virtually run the team.

When it is all put into perspective, it is hard to count out the Steelers. They have perhaps the best organization in the NFL with a great front office and scouting department. They seem to replace veterans at the right time, and they have the right formula.

And of course, they have Tomlin, who will probably survive, just like Harbaugh.