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Hot or Not

NFL Hot or Not: Mike Tomlin's Steelers were hiding in plain sight

In the wake of Week 8, Marc Sessler dishes on what's hot -- and what's not -- in the NFL:


1) Four months ago, the Steelers were just another Chiefs-chasing roster in the AFC.

Pittsburgh's future was dipped in unknowns over Ben Roethlisberger returning to us post-elbow surgery at the tender age of 38. Concerns amplified when said quarterback released a stay-at-home-during-Corona video in March that revealed a Bigger Ben sporting the beard of a woodsy ascetic and the hair of Ted Kaczynski.

Alarms were not quelled when Jay Glazer of FOX Sports warned us not to "put the words fitness and Ben Roethlisberger together, they are allergic to each other. There is no fitness in Ben Roethlisberger. His idea of a great offseason workout program is doing one yoga session, playing golf and drinking some beer."

Turns out, Big Ben was working with a trainer the entire time. Turns out, we all resembled raging, psychotic junk during the early days of a pandemic. I have yet to bounce back, but Roethlisberger has, guiding his Steelers to a 7-0 start that reached a tipping point with Sunday's 28-24 topping of the Ravens.

It was a game Pittsburgh survived. A typically rigid Steelers defense allowed 265 yards on the ground, but also generated the team's only points of the first half with a 33-yard pick-six by Robert Spillane.

It was Steelers coach Mike Tomlin who last week offered no clues on stopping Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, telling scribes: "I wish I had an answer to that ... I wish the National Football League had an answer to that."

The Steelers do house an answer. They just aren't sharing it after coaxing a frustrated Jackson into a pair of interceptions and two lost fumbles. Consider that seven of Lamar's 15 giveaways since 2019 have come in two contests against the Steelers. Five of his 10 picks have been taken away by a berserker Pittsburgh unit that came into the game determined to mute Baltimore's most lethal weapon.

Jackson was kept to a modest (in his world) 65 yards on terra firma amid questions over the passing scheme. After Marquise "Hollywood" Brown was held to one catch for 3 yards (though it was a touchdown), the agitated wideout tweeted (and then deleted) a hot-take complaint asking: "[W]hat's the point of having souljas when you never use them (Never!!)"

At the heart of all this is not Big Ben or Big Ben's adventures in Beard Culture, but Tomlin, the oft-overlooked, rugged leader with zero losing seasons to his name in Year 14 as Steelers head coach. The same whirlwind who captured his 140th win on Sunday, snapping a tie with Tony Dungy for the most wins by a Black coach in league history. His players adore him. Trust him. Celebrate with him and take part in creating a Pittsburgh culture all its own.

Some jab at the Steelers for blooming off the winnings of a horse race, but that ignores what they are under Tomlin: One of the premier operations in pro sports. Tomlin has lost his share of playoff bouts to Bill Belichick, but today we sit in an AFC where the furniture has been shifted around the room.

The Chiefs remain a paramount threat, and the Ravens will be back, but these unblemished Steelers fought their way into the AFC's upper tier after being overlooked all offseason. Now it's easy to see: They're clear-as-day Super Bowl material under the watch of a coach who will someday reside in the halls of Canton.

2) The Browns were beaten by a take-me-seriously Raiders club that felled the Chiefs in Week 5 and simply played a tougher brand of football on the ground in the middle of a Mother Nature hammer-dropping. Each time I scanned FirstEnergy Stadium, the atmosphere was a kaleidoscope of fierce winds, pelting rain, hail, sleet, debris blowing and general soggy tumult. Las Vegas, though, played like the team from Northeast Ohio, while Cleveland's run-stoppers seemed a better fit for poolside mojitos at Wet Republic. Raiders runner Josh Jacobs eased out of a slump with a blistering 128 yards on the ground. Derek Carr waltzed around the icy climes in pregame shirtsleeves and offered a workmanlike outing that should have included a touchdown grab by rookie Henry Ruggs III. He was in!

3) A question we'll be asking a year from now: Is Joe Burrow the best quarterback in the AFC North? We could be asking this today, but the sample size for the Bengals rookie passer -- while juicy -- remains just half an NFL season. Still, Sunday's surprise win over Tennessee included more evidence of Burrow seeing pass rushers in blind spots and working his way out of trouble with an incredible feel for would-be pocket calamities. When a player like this arrives, you can spend the season less obsessed with the win-loss record to simply swim in the future possibilities. Pro football in Cincinnati has crossed the Rubicon into lands of fire behind the most thrilling rookie arm stationed east of Justin Herbert.


1) I just assume Bill Belichick is punking us. But to what end? All four of the team's wideouts in Sunday's gut-punch loss to the Bills -- Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd, Isaiah Zuber and Gunner Olszewski -- were undrafted free agents. New England entered the game with Ryan Izzo as the only active tight end. Cam Newton fought hard until his crushing final fumble sealed the tilt for Buffalo, but no quarterback outside of Sam Darnold is draped by fewer proven skill players. Perhaps the kernel of inspiration begins there. An intricate plot to trick the unknowing Jets into their biggest gaffe yet: Falling out of contention for the No. 1 overall pick.

A scenario to monitor despite its potential disconnection from reality: Winless New York sits in pole position for Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The Jets play like it, too, but can we trust Adam Gase to lose out, per the wishes of his fan base? Wouldn't he rather tell his grandkids he felled the great Belichick twice in one season? These teams play Monday night and again in Week 17. If the Jets ever messed up by winning those games, New England certainly could fail against the Ravens, Texans, Cardinals, Chargers, Rams, Dolphins and Bills. With a little help from the NFL's other bottom-feeders, the Patriots could be two months away from securing Lawrence for themselves in the greatest Belichick lever-pull of all time.

2) One understandable but annoying aspect to this week: Various fan bases on Twitter freaking when their teams aren't active ahead of the trade deadline. Annoying because, inside, I do the same. I am watching the Chargers ship Desmond King to the Titans for a sixth-round pick and the lifelong Browns fan within thinks to myself, Wait a minute. Cleveland could have used this player. A sixth-round pick is equivalent to a bag of seashells unless it's spent on Tom Brady months after Y2K ultimately wound up not turning America's computer grids to mush!

It's kind of like wanting your team to win free agency, without confronting the often-bleak results on spending bags of loot on a veteran player Team A decided to let walk. It's all about fit. King is up for a new contract after the season, so this vibes as a rental for the league's 27th-ranked passing defense on a team that sees itself as a Super Bowl contender. What the Chargers are telling us: After four years of working with this player, we are comfortable not re-signing him. Maybe King will make the Bolts look foolish, but losing sleep over trade-deadline silence by your club's general manager is just that -- losing sleep.

3) Speaking of fits, here's a telling nugget by Fantasy Labs editor Matthew Freedman on the hideous luck of Bears wideout Allen Robinson. Since his 1,000-yard breakout season at Penn State in 2012, the list of quarterbacks throwing to him read like this: Matt McGloin, Christian Hackenberg, Blake Bortles, Mitchell Trubisky and a low-octane version of Nick Foles. Robinson keeps producing with acrobatic, high-concept grabs in key situations, but his pairings with accuracy-addled passers feels like the duplication of Liz Taylor's marriage career on the football field, something no human requested. Robinson deserves a love connection. If the Bears can't freshen up their stinking remains of an offense, this will turn ugly.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSessler.

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