A 7-4 record, a top-five offense and a quarterback having the best year of an impressive career have only done enough to get the Pittsburgh Steelers a tie for last place in the ultra-competitive AFC North.
For the New Orleans Saints, 4-7 in the historically dreadful NFC South is just bad enough to be good.
The Steelers try to keep up in the NFL’s tightest division race Sunday as they return home to face the Saints, who despite dropping three straight haven’t lost their tenuous grip on first place.
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Pittsburgh is in a three-team cluster just behind 7-3-1 Cincinnati, making the North the first division in NFL history to have all of its teams at least three games above .500 at the same time.
Not entirely coincidental considering the two divisions cross-match on the schedule this season, the South is the first division to have every team three games below .500. New Orleans, Atlanta, Carolina and Tampa Bay are 6-22-1 when not playing each other and 1-10-1 against the AFC North, with the Buccaneers’ Week 4 win at Pittsburgh the only victory.
The Saints were 4-4 and in first place by themselves when they kicked off a three-game homestand Nov. 9. Despite getting swept at the Superdome after Monday’s 34-27 loss to Baltimore, New Orleans still shares first place with Atlanta.
"Obviously, our margin for error is not good enough to win close games," coach Sean Payton told the Saints’ official website. "We have to be able to play better and coach better. … And most importantly, we have to make sure we have thick enough skin and be able to have the mental and physical toughness to bounce back and play (at Pittsburgh), because we are playing, obviously, an important game."
New Orleans, however, could quite realistically win the division and host a playoff game even at 5-11 or 6-10. Pittsburgh’s margin for error is far slimmer, as it’s one of 11 AFC teams with at least six wins.
Just don’t ask coach Mike Tomlin to worry about the big picture quite yet.
"All we have to focus on is the stadium that we’re in because we’re in the thick of that," Tomlin said. "If we do what we need to do on a week-in and week-out basis in terms of our business in our stadium, then it’s not going to be required that we look around. We play some significant people moving forward, (with) New Orleans being the most significant because that’s who we play this week."
Pittsburgh is coming off a bye after splitting road games against the New York Jets and Tennessee, a two-week stretch where Ben Roethlisberger threw three interceptions, took seven sacks and hit just two passing plays of at least 25 yards.
Perhaps he’ll be more comfortable back at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger threw six touchdowns in each of the last two games in Pittsburgh, giving him 18 TDs, one interception and a 130.5 passer rating at home.
He’s hit on an NFL-best 19 plays of at least 25 yards at home, equaling Drew Brees’ total over all of 2014. Only one of Brees’ has gone to Jimmy Graham, who had 13 last season.
The Steelers are getting used to Roethlisberger converting big plays downfield.
"We appreciate it. We don’t take it for granted," Tomlin said. "It’s been really good. But it’s not unlike him. He is capable of heating up and going for these stretches and being a significant reason why we are successful, not only offensively but as a football team."
The Steelers’ top-five offense is the NFL’s best at home (447.2 yards per game), while the Saints’ second-ranked offense only falls to third (418.0) on the road despite their 1-4 record. Eleven giveaways have doomed New Orleans away from the Superdome.
The Saints will see a healthier Pittsburgh defense than what the Steelers have trotted out in recent weeks. Cornerback Ike Taylor is expected to return for the first time since breaking his right forearm in Week 3, while safety Troy Polamalu will be back after missing two games with a sprained knee. Linebacker Ryan Shazier (ankle) could also return.
Meanwhile, the hits keep coming for New Orleans’ defense. Nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley suffered a torn quad against the Ravens, and his absence was felt as Baltimore piled up 215 rushing yards.
The Saints’ last three opponents have averaged 5.45 yards per carry, which is good news for Le’Veon Bell. Pittsburgh’s second-year star ran for a career-high 204 yards against the Titans, and Bell is the only reliable back available since the Steelers cut backup LeGarrette Blount less than 24 hours after he left the field early in Tennessee.
The pass defense hasn’t been much better for New Orleans. Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco averaged more than 10 yards per attempt and completed over 70 percent of their throws the past two weeks.
"Every game that we come out, it is something new," said Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis, who played his first four NFL seasons with Pittsburgh. "Sometimes we have problems with the pass. Sometimes we have problems with the run. Sometimes we have a problem with both. We have to fix everything."
Now New Orleans, which has three safeties on injured reserve, has to deal with Antonio Brown – the NFL leader with 88 receptions – and a deep corps of wideouts that includes former Saint Lance Moore.
Moore caught 38 of Brees’ 153 touchdown passes from 2007-13, including one in the Saints’ 20-10 win over the Steelers in New Orleans four years ago.