(Photo: Justin Casterline/Getty)
This was originally published in The Athletic....
On a late Halloween afternoon in 2004, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the New England Patriots by two touchdowns in a game that was never really in doubt.
Pittsburgh’s victory that day wasn’t some kind of monumental, balance-of-power-shifting upset. The Steelers came into the game with a 5-1 record, they were playing in Pittsburgh and they would go on to finish with a 15-1 record. The Pats recovered from the defeat nicely, losing just one more time (a memorable Monday night meltdown against a terrible Dolphins team) on their way to a win against the Steelers in the AFC Championship, and ultimately, their third Super Bowl championship in four years.
Still, that win for then-rookie Ben Roethlisberger was a big deal. By late October of 2004, the Patriots were well into a nearly two-decade-long dynasty. Counting the postseason, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick had led New England to 21 straight victories, including an NFL-record 18 consecutive in the regular season. They’d beaten the Steelers in the 2001 AFC Championship game, then again in the 2002 season opener.
Yet even though the rookie wasn’t asked to do too much — Roethlisberger routinely had games in which he dropped back fewer than 20 times that first season — he played flawlessly against a defense that had allowed the fewest points per game the prior season.
The position Joe Burrow is in this weekend isn’t exactly like the one Roethlisberger encountered, but it is somewhat comparable. The Pittsburgh team he’ll play against in his Heinz Field debut on Sunday is the league’s only unbeaten team, with a marginally comfortable lead atop the AFC North. The Steelers possess a fierce, pass-rush-intensive defense that makes them a threat to make me hate-watch the Super Bowl the way I do whenever the Rooney family has a chance to add to its ring collection. Counting the 2015 playoff fiasco at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals have lost to the Steelers 10 straight times.
Burrow’s initial NFL encounters have lacked the number of wins that Roethlisberger enjoyed during his rookie season, but he has been impressive through the first half. Burrow is already very much on the national radar despite his team winning just twice in eight games, but by directing the Bengals to a second straight upset win, he has a chance to be Monday morning’s most talked-about quarterback. It’s not inconceivable that if the Bengals can somehow hand the Steelers their first loss, a claim could be made that among a fellow No. 1 overall pick, a reigning MVP and a future Hall-of-Famer, Joe Burrow is the AFC North’s best quarterback.
To read the entire piece, go to The Athletic.