Matt Canada is gone. The Pittsburgh Steelers are hopeful their season(s)-long offensive malaise is, too.
Joe Burrow is gone. The Cincinnati Bengals are hopeful their playoff aspirations didn't exit along with their injured franchise quarterback.
The AFC North rivals will get a chance to set the tone for the rest of the season when they meet on Sunday, with the loser potentially facing a difficult road to stay in the crowded and competitive AFC North race.
The Bengals (5-5) may already be there. With Burrow's season over because of a wrist injury sustained last week in Baltimore, Bengals coach Zac Taylor is turning to inexperienced backup Jake Browning, who will make his first NFL start against the Steelers (6-4).
"Every team faces adversity in this league. Every team loses players," Taylor said. "It's got to come down to the strength of your locker room, the character in the room and finding ways to win games."
Browning was a practice-squad player for several seasons before winning the backup QB job for Cincinnati in training camp.
"We believe in Jake," Taylor said. "That's why he's here, and that's why he's getting this opportunity."
The same goes in Pittsburgh, where Eddie Faulkner was promoted to offensive coordinator this week after Matt Canada's abrupt midseason firing, the franchise's first major in-season coaching change since World War II.
Considering the Steelers rank near the bottom in most offensive categories, they are fortunate to be in third place in the AFC North and within reach of a playoff spot, at least for now. Their six wins have come by eight points or less.
"Y'all could look at it like it's a good record, but I mean it's the NFL," Steelers running back Najee Harris said. "Winning how we did, it's not going to get us nowhere."
Pittsburgh lost to Cleveland 13-10 when Browns rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson guided Cleveland to a game-winning drive in the final minutes.
A week later, the Steelers face another largely unknown quantity in Browning.
The 27-year-old Browning, a former University of Washington star, went undrafted in 2019 and ended up on the Vikings practice squad. Browning was signed to the Bengals practice squad in 2021 and '22. With Burrow sidelined by a calf injury during training camp this summer, Browning beat out the more experienced Trevor Siemian for the backup job.
After seeing action in six preseason games in the past two seasons, Browning made a brief regular-season debut in Week 1, attempting one pass. Entering for the wounded Burrow against the Ravens, he was 8 for 14 for 68 yards and threw a TD pass to Ja'Marr Chase.
He led a 10-play field-goal drive to open the third quarter that cut the Bengals' deficit to 21-13, but Baltimore responded with 13 unanswered points to seal it.
"This is what Jake's built for," said Bengals offensive tackle Jonah Williams, who played high school football with the quarterback in Folsom, California. "He's just very even-keeled."
The Steelers are taking an unusual approach to replacing Canada. Faulkner will organize the meetings and put together the game plan, with quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan calling the plays on Sunday.
"On game day, any playcaller wants to be narrowly focused on what he needs to do and I'm not going to interfere with that," Faulkner said. "At the same time, we're going to have enough conversations so when we go into that game atmosphere we're all on the same page when the chips start to fall out."
With one of the NFL's best passers sidelined, the Bengals likely will try to step up their running game, which has been stuck in the mud all season. They are 30th in rushing out of 32 teams. No. 1 back Joe Mixon is averaging 4 yards per game and hasn't eclipsed the 100-yard mark this season.
Steelers second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett has struggled in recent weeks and has only two touchdown passes since Oct. 1, one of the main reasons Pittsburgh opted to move on from Canada.
While the Steelers figure to try to rely on a running game that has piled up 543 yards on the ground over the last three weeks, Pickett knows he needs to take a significant step forward down the stretch if Pittsburgh wants to be a legitimate playoff threat.
"We all got to improve, I got to play a lot better," Pickett said. "We got to play a lot better as an offense. Put more points on the board. Our defense is doing a great job, so we got to handle our business. Obviously, you know, a tough test going into another road environment in the AFC north. So, we got to get ready."
AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL
for more features.