For most of the season, I have ranked the New England Patriots as the best team in the AFC, and they are except for a few things: they can't defend the pass, they can't defend the run, aren't very good at tackling period, oh and unless the opponents are lining up seven defensive backs, they can't run the ball either. And the less said about their special teams, the better.
At this rate, the mighty Patriots aren't even the best team in their division. That honor goes to the Buffalo Bills. And the crown of the AFC's top contender is currently being worn by the team that last represented the conference in the Super Bowl. The one that just ragdolled the Pats defense up and down the field. The old, slow and done Pittsburgh Steelers.
Pittsburgh's resilient, disciplined performance in a 25-17 win was convincing, but not wholly satisfying. Once the Steelers showed they could contain Wes Welker (the league leader in yards after catch, with 390 entering yesterday's game), it felt almost as though the curtain had been pulled away from Tom Brady's Wizard of Oz routine. This was the great and terrible Patriots team? Really?
With Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu blanketing Welker, the Steelers played a surprising "bend but don't break" defense. They allowed Brady to complete 24 of 35 passes, but held him below 200 yards for the first time this season. A telling stat: the explosive Patriots rang up only one play longer than 20 yards this game. They had been averaging nearly 5 per game.
Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger was throwing with abandon against the Patriots' secondary, which was not in the least bit improved by the "addition by subtraction" move of releasing veteran cornerback Leigh Bodden. For all who expect the Steelers to return to their smashmouth ways, don't hold your breath. Even without reliable target Hines Ward, Big Ben looked mighty comfortable lofting 50 passes on the day. Pittsburgh has been steadily stockpiling quality receiver depth, allowing them to let Santonio Holmes walk and Hines Ward sit. Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown (21 receptions for 207 yards combined) are more than capable of attacking all parts of the field.
So the Steelers ascend to the top spot in the AFC, and very probably the #2 position in the Power Rankings (unless we dare write in the San Francisco 49ers...). But questions remain about the "power conference" days of the AFC. They currently hold two legitimate contenders for 0-16 teams in Miami and Indianapolis. The AFC East is ruled by a collection of seventh round picks in Buffalo. Peyton is gone. Brady's team isn't carrying its weight. And Baltimore barely avoided becoming a laughingstock with a loss to Arizona.
As we contemplate the pending dominance of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, we have to ask: who's going to challenge them? Right now, it's the Steelers or bust. Super Bowl rematch, here we come...
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