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MOORE: Left for dead, Steelers lead AFC North

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David Moore

David Moore has been the senior football writer for FOX Sports since Aug. 2005. He appears weekly on the FSN Baseball Report and MLB on FOX. One more line lorem ipsum dolor sit amet e pluribus unum.

 
   
 

CLEVELAND

The way Pittsburgh struggled to open the season, it was reasonable to expect the team would go into late November or early December before it was able to regain its winning equilibrium. Sunday afternoon, it was clear anyone who held that theory was guilty on two counts: not giving the enough credit, and giving Cleveland too much. Nine weeks into this unpredictable season, Pittsburgh has regained control of its division. The ' 23-20 victory has given them a one-and-a-half game lead in the AFC North. Pittsburgh has already beaten the twice, earning the crucial tiebreaker if Cleveland somehow manages to finish with the same record as the . That won¿t happen. A Pittsburgh team that lost its first two games of the season by a total of 29 points -- and three of its first four games overall -- is back on the AFC Championship track. The have won their last four games by a total of 61 points. Pittsburgh is now 5-3 on the season and, more important, undefeated (4-0) in the division. "Sometimes, things don¿t work out the way you planned," Pittsburgh strong safety Lee Flowers said. "That is what happened the first couple of weeks. "It¿s funny. You guys (media) standing here, boy, you wrote us off the first three weeks. Now all of a sudden, the are moving again. "We¿re finally getting ourselves back to the team that you guys wanted us to be in off-season and training camp." Finally? Five weeks ago, this team was two games below .500 and had just made a change at quarterback. The running game wasn¿t up and running and the defense had allowed 30 or more points in three of its first four games. If only the economy would turn around this quickly. "Sometimes, you can grow greatly from slow starts, having to overcome things," Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said. The have grown with at quarterback, the creativity of offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and a return of the defense to its bruising form. Maddox came off the sidelines in Week 4 to lead the to an overtime victory over the and win the starting job. He is 4-1 as a starter and presided over an offense that scored 28 or more points in four consecutive games — a first in the franchise¿s very long and defensive-oriented history. On this day, Maddox pulled the trigger on an offense that more than doubled Cleveland in yards (391-193) and held the ball for over 70 percent of the game. Maddox threw two touchdowns and consistently converted on third-and-long. On top of that, he¿s humble. "There are 52 guys in here who saved the season," Maddox said, disputing the idea his two victories over Cleveland allowed Pittsburgh to turn things around. "And we still have a lot of season left." That means eight more weeks of the regular season for Mularkey to keep defenses off-balance with his play-calling. Over the course of the afternoon, the ran a no-huddle offense, threw a pass off a double-reverse and executed a shovel pass after a handoff. Three different players threw a pass — a roll-out by receiver was negated due to off-setting penalties — five different players ran the ball and seven different players caught a pass. "We used pretty much everything," Cowher said. That included a third-team running back that Cleveland couldn¿t stop. Pittsburgh had no for this game. No Chris Fuamatu-Ma¿afala. No problem. showed he¿s better than any back the have on their roster. He ran for 111 yards and had 173 yards in total offense with his five receptions. "That secondary is not really sound," said Pittsburgh¿s , referring to the absence of cornerback and safety with injuries. "They came into the game playing a lot of Cover 2 and zone. "You could see on the tape that we could run on first and second down. I told Amos last night that he should have a big day, and that¿s what he did." The defense also did its part. A group that was burned by the pass in the first two weeks of the season, then had trouble stopping the run has righted itself. Pittsburgh forced three turnovers in the second half of Sunday¿s game. It held the to 36 yards rushing and allowed them to convert on third down just twice in nine attempts. A healthy — he missed four consecutive games — has a lot to do with the improved play on defense. "If they (offense) give us 17 points or more, it¿s a done deal," Flowers said. "A done deal." Pittsburgh winning the division is as close as you can come to a done deal with eight weeks left in the season. "There were a lot of ramifications with this game," Cowher conceded. "We knew going in that this was going to be a game where we could put some separation between us and the other teams in the division. "With the new format, the one thing that assures you a playoff spot is to win the division. Anything beyond that and you¿re throwing it up in the air. "We put ourselves in a good position. Now is certainly not the time to relax. We have fought hard to get there. We¿re not worrying about where we were and pondering where we¿re going. We¿re going to deal with who we are right now. "And right now, we¿re playing pretty confident." David Moore can be reached at his e-mail address: dmoore@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Browns, Steelers, Corey Fuller, Robert Griffith, Amos Zereoue, Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward, Jerome Bettis, Tommy Maddox

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