Steelers peaking for 2nd half as AFC race develops

November 10, 2009

At the same time the Colts and Patriots are looking ahead to their pivotal AFC game in Indianapolis on Sunday night, they might be tempted to peek over their shoulders at the Steelers. With a look of worry, too. The Super Bowl champions are gaining on them. Winners of five in a row, the Steelers are looking again like a team no one would willingly play in January. Or February. The Denver Broncos might pass along this message to the Cincinnati Bengals: The Steelers aren't much fun in November, either. The Steelers (6-2) appear to have long since moved past their last-minute losses to the Bears and Bengals that occurred with star safety Troy Polamalu injured and out. Their defense-driven 28-10 victory in Denver on Monday night put them in position to take over sole possession of the AFC North lead if they beat Cincinnati (6-2) on Sunday. In their last two games, the Steelers have been dominant defensively and effective offensively in defeating two teams that were unbeaten only a couple of weeks ago, the Vikings (7-1) and the Broncos (6-2). "We pride ourselves on being a great, dominant road team," said wide receiver Hines Ward, who made two touchdown catches in Denver. "For us to get to where we want to go, we need to win on the road and not just at home. I feel like us, along with the Colts and the Patriots, have established ourselves as great teams on the road." What effectively is a three-game swing resulting from a single afternoon also makes Sunday's AFC North game vitally important to both the Bengals and Steelers. If the Steelers win, they would lead the Bengals by one game and own plenty of momentum, plus a soft closing schedule. Should the Bengals win, they would essentially lead by two games because they would own the tiebreaker based on beating the Steelers twice. Big games between the Bengals and Steelers have been rare since the 1980s, but this is clearly one of them. "Classic," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called it on Tuesday. Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco added some, uh, flavor by posting a Twitter message that he plans on shipping gifts to some Steelers players before the game at Heinz Field. "Sending them some mustard since they'll never ketchup when we play Sunday," Ochocinco said in his tweet. Johnson, who thoughtfully sent deodorant to some Ravens players last week, must be hoping he runs better than he puns. While it begins with the key game against Cincinnati, the second half of the season looks much different to the Steelers than that of a season ago, when they met five playoff teams and six with winning records during their final eight games. This season, none of the Steelers' final seven opponents currently has a winning record and only the Ravens (4-4) and Packers (4-4) are at .500. Still left on their schedule are the Chiefs (1-7), Browns (1-7), Raiders (2-6) and Dolphins (3-5). The team is different, too. Only two starters were lost after the Steelers beat Arizona in the Super Bowl, but the Steelers appear to be deeper at running back and wide receiver than they were last season. Despite the Steelers' shift to a more pass-heavy offense, Rashard Mendenhall has twice rushed for at least 155 yards in the last five games. And rookie wide receiver Mike Wallace made four catches for 69 yards and a touchdown against Denver. Roethlisberger's 70.6 completion percentage matches Peyton Manning's as the NFL's best, although Manning has more attempts. With 2,295 yards passing and a half-season to go, Roethlisberger is on pace to easily break Terry Bradshaw's team record of 3,724 yards in 1979. On defense, where the Steelers have scored three touchdowns in two games - or two more than they allowed - there are signs they are becoming as good as the units that led the NFL the last two seasons. Since Polamalu returned from missing four games with a torn left knee ligament, the Steelers have forced nine turnovers in three games. Last week, Tomlin kept reminding that the Broncos ranked first defensively - "the world's best defense," he called them. His own players, who take pride in owning that distinction themselves, obviously were motivated by the message. "As the game wore on, I think they imposed their will on the game," Tomlin said. "That's what good teams have got to do." While there will be considerable emphasis placed on Sunday's winner-takes-first game, the Steelers own the look of a team that understands it may be playing this season for a lot more than a division title. "If we proceed and continue to grow and get better, it (Denver) is a game we can point back to when the dust settles in February, but at this point I'm not ready to say that," Tomlin said. ---