Behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's return, the Steelers are 4-0 and back on top of the division standings. But behind first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski, the Browns are 4-1 and off to their best start in 26 years.
Below, we break down a matchup and rivalry that could have major playoff implications down the line:
What's been the biggest change for each team?
Jake Trotter, ESPN Cleveland Browns reporter: Despite having to implement a new offensive system amid a virtual offseason and shortened training camp, the Browns have already unlocked an offensive identity, powered by the league's top running game. The knee injury to Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb hurt, but Cleveland still features the 2017 rushing champ in Kareem Hunt, who is second in the league averaging 2.7 yards after contact per rush. But the biggest turnaround is an offensive line that went from ranking 31st in run block win rate last year to fourth this season.
Brooke Pryor, ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers writer: Yes, Roethlisberger is back, but his presence does more than elevate the passing game, which has improved significantly from ranking 31st in the league last season with 186.3 passing yards per game. His return also has contributed to a more balanced offense and a stronger performance in the run game. A year ago, the Steelers ranked 29th in rushing yards per game with 90.4 and 30th in rushing yards per attempt with just 3.66. Through four games this season, the Steelers rank in the top 10 with 138.8 rushing yards per game and 4.55 rushing yards per attempt. It helps that James Conner has been mostly healthy this season, and the Steelers are also able to utilize rookie Anthony McFarland as a change-of-pace, game-breaking back.
What would a win mean for the Browns? For the Steelers?
Trotter: You could easily make the case that a win would be Cleveland's biggest since returning to the NFL in 1999. The Browns wouldn't just be defeating a rival that has basically owned them in recent years, especially in Pittsburgh. They would be taking another big step toward ending the league's longest playoff drought, up to 18 years. Cleveland is playing like a confident team right now. A win in Heinz Field would further cement that confidence and belief of what is possible.
Pryor: A win for the Steelers would further legitimize them as not only a contender in their division, but in the entire AFC. The Steelers enter the game with their first 4-0 record since 1979, but those wins have come against opponents with a current combined record of 3-15-1. None of their four opponents have a winning record. Meanwhile, the Browns are 4-1 entering Heinz Field and are one of the hottest teams in the NFL. A win could further validate the Steelers' offensive turnaround since Roethlisberger's return, and it also could be a chance for the defense, shaky against the Eagles, to get back on track.
What can we expect from each team in their first meeting with Myles Garrett back on the field?
Trotter: Off the suspension after the helmet swing against Pittsburgh that ended his 2019 season, Garrett is playing the best ball of his pro career. He has three strip sacks, and forced Colts quarterback Philip Rivers into an intentional grounding safety on Sunday. Only two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald has more sacks (7.5) than Garrett, who has six. It will be interesting to see how Garrett responds to the microscope in Pittsburgh, especially with fans in the stands, who figure to be all over him. The best way to respond would be to deliver another game-changing play.
Pryor: One of the major players from the Steelers' side of the altercation is likely to be on the field Sunday. With Roethlisberger's return, backup quarterback Mason Rudolph, who was hit in the head with a helmet swung by Garrett, won't play unless something goes horribly awry. Center Maurkice Pouncey, who was suspended for two games a year ago for his role in the altercation, sustained a foot injury in the win against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5, but coach Mike Tomlin is optimistic he will play on Sunday. The Steelers aren't likely to forget last year's explosion sparked by Garrett and Rudolph. But with both Rudolph not playing and former Browns coach Freddie Kitchens, who stoked the flames even more by wearing a "Pittsburgh Started It" shirt in public before the rematch, gone, this game won't be as fiery as it could be. But make no mistake: these two teams don't like each other.
What is each team's outlook the rest of the way for winning the AFC North?
Trotter: The Browns boast a 76.8% chance to make the playoffs, according to the ESPN Football Power Index. Given that the road trip to Pittsburgh might be their toughest remaining game, a win would substantially improve their chances. Especially considering even with the Pittsburgh trip, the Browns have the NFL's second-easiest remaining schedule, according to FPI. Cleveland would still be in solid playoff shape with a loss. But a win would put the Browns in the driver's seat to finally make the playoffs.
Pryor: The Steelers check in right above the Browns with an 81.5% chance to make the playoffs, per FPI. The Ravens lead the division's playoff odds in ESPN's Football Power Index with a 97.3% chance to make the playoffs, setting up for a dogfight between the Steelers and Browns to get a wild-card spot. With both matchups against the Ravens ahead, the Steelers have the 12th most difficult remaining strength of schedule -- not to mention their previously scheduled Week 8 bye was eliminated to accommodate a schedule shuffle spurred by the Titans' COVID-19 outbreak. The Steelers will have a 13-week gauntlet to navigate to earn their first playoff bid since 2017, and the biggest test of the season starts with the Browns on Sunday.