Bye week boost: Steelers suddenly atop topsy-turvy AFC North

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree spent a rare fall weekend off watching the rest of the AFC North falter, one by one. First, the Browns lost in overtime in Tampa. Then Baltimore fell at home to New Orleans when Justin Tucker missed the first extra point of his career. Then Cincinnati was bum rushed by Kansas City.

And just like that, the Steelers (3-2-1) were back atop the division.

“We never panicked,” Dupree said. “We may have lost two games but we never panicked. We tied (but) we never panicked. We know what type of team we got.”

One with a chance in a way to start over seven weeks into the season. Pittsburgh is well-rested heading into a visit from the Browns (2-4-1) on Sunday, a rematch of a 21-21 tie in Week 1 that felt an awful lot like a loss to the Steelers, who led by 14 going into the fourth quarter only to see it slip away. Another setback a week later at home to the Chiefs , the continuing melodrama surrounding wide receiver Antonio Brown and the extended absence of All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell had Pittsburgh teetering.

Not so much anymore. Brown is tied for the league lead in receiving touchdowns and while Bell’s exact arrival date remains uncertain — his locker remained largely untouched on Monday while he continues to wait to sign his one-year franchise tender — the Steelers have survived thanks in large part to the rapid development of second-year back James Conner .

Bell told ESPN last month he planned to arrive before Cleveland visited Heinz Field. It still might happen, though it’s hard to imagine him being anywhere close to game ready if he shows up before Sunday. Now the same teammates who called Bell out when he failed to arrive in time for the opener are taking a more pragmatic approach to his extended sabbatical.

Center Maurkice Pouncey laughed when asked if there was a betting pool among the Steelers on when exactly Bell will be in his familiar spot just inside the team’s locker-room door.

“No bets are out there trust me, we are not gambling here,” Pouncey said.

Pouncey might not be, but Bell certainly is. He’s already sacrificed over $5.1 million of the $14.5 million in guaranteed money he was expected to receive this season playing on the tag. Bell’s plan remains a mystery to his teammates and the organization, one of the reasons Pouncey shrugged off questions about Bell’s status.

“Honestly I’m enjoying the ride just like you guys,” Pouncey said. “I want to see how it plays out. It seems pretty cool. I don’t know. I’m going to wait and see.”

The tension that accompanied Bell’s decision to go away — and stay away — has dissipated. If anything, the Steelers have moved on. That Bell didn’t show up for work Monday hardly qualifies as news. Pittsburgh is more focused on trying to carry forward the momentum it built while beating Atlanta and Cincinnati before heading into its off week, a modest two-game winning streak that suddenly made the Steelers the hottest team in the unpredictable AFC North.

Not that they feel the worst is behind them.

“For us to focus on something that means completely nothing at this point in the season (like the standings) is worthless,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “I just think got to be a group on the hunt.”

Even if technically Pittsburgh is now the hunted, just as it has been while winning the division each of the last two seasons. Then again, things could change quickly. The Steelers host the Browns, then visit Baltimore the following week. They don’t play another division game until facing Cincinnati in the regular-season finale.

What the standings will look like then is anybody’s guess. Then again, being in the driver’s seat despite its wholly uneven play certainly beats the alternative.

“We don’t have to stand around looking at anybody else and wonder if a team is going to do this or that,” Heyward said. “We play every team once again in our division. We control our destiny, that’s the way you want it. But we got a lot of work to do to do that.”