SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 19: Strong safety #43 Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers leaps while attempting to deflect a pass thrown by #11 Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers during their game at Candlestick Park on December 19, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)
The AFC North was humbled by the end of Monday night.
Arguing about which team played worse - Baltimore or Pittsburgh - is laughable, mostly, because New England is the team laughing loudest Tuesday.
The four AFC major contenders all had big games this weekend in terms of playoff positioning. Baltimore got drubbed by San Diego, Houston whipped by Carolina and with Pittsburgh's less-than-inspiring performance in a 20-3 loss at San Francisco, the Patriots - who traveled to Denver and dispatched of the upstart Broncos in impressive fashion - take the lead for the No. 1 overall seed.
If the playoffs ended today, Pittsburgh (5) would travel to Denver (4), and the Jets (6) would travel to Houston (3). New England (1) and Baltimore (2) would have a week off.
The No. 1 seed was Baltimore's for the taking, but San Diego quickly took that away. Pittsburgh managed to barely outscore the power outages (3-2) at Candlestick Park. The Patriots, however, surrendered some big plays to Denver early in Week 15, but maintained composure and blew the doors off the Broncos' red-hot machine. That was a team that won six games in a row; the Patriots rattled off 27 unanswered points from midway through the second quarter to the end of the game.
If they win out, they will again be the AFC's No. 1 seed.
No one was really talking about them after the Ravens loss. It was all about Pittsburgh. It's crazy, how things change when a team turns the ball over.
Pittsburgh racked up 389 yards of offense, impressive, considering the opponent. But three Roethlisberger interceptions and a fumble destroyed any significant scoring threat. If not for a Shaun Suisham miracle 52-yard field goal, it would have been a shut out.
Suisham returned to form later by missing a 48-yarder wide left.
There are still two games to go, and it appears the contenders representing the AFC North need the work. Baltimore has a home game against Cleveland in Week 16 before ending their season at Cincinnati. Baltimore is 3-4 on the road this year.
Pittsburgh will face St. Louis at home in Week 16, and travel to Cleveland, a team who had the ball inside Pittsburgh's 10-yard line down 7-3 in the fourth quarter in Week 14. Houston is at Indianapolis Thursday night, then host Tennessee to finish the year.
The Patriots are at home against Miami and Buffalo to end the year.