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Defending AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers Prove They're Still Team to Beat in Conference

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Boy, doesn't all that angst following the first month seem a little silly now? I'm mainly talking about yours truly more than anyone. I mean, I was starting to buy into the whole notion that the Pittsburgh Steelers were old and slow in the wake of their alarming losses to the Ravens and Texans in Week 1 and Week 4 respectively.  I was starting to believe that the team just didn't have it anymore.

There were a number of legitimate concerns about the Steelers chances after they posted a 2-2 record in the opening month of the 2011 season. How would the team play without James Harrison, the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year with the best track record of pressuring the quarterback and forcing turnovers? Is LaMarr Woodley still on the roster, and would he snap out of his early-season slump and play up to his immense potential? What's wrong with Ben Roethlisberger? If he's still making costly turnovers in his eighth season, is it realistic to think he'll ever get over being mistake-prone at any given moment? How much does a new offensive line cost? Why is the front-seven having so much trouble against the run? Has the window closed for good on this veteran team?

Well, the Steelers started answering all of those questions right away and reeled off three mostly impressive wins over inferior opponents. The team signed veteran offensive tackle Max Starks right before the game against the Titans, and the play of the line improved. Roethlisberger had more time in the pocket and threw nine touchdown passes in the three victories--including five in the game against the Titans. The running game improved as the guys up front started opening up holes for Mendenhall and company. Overall,  the offense started to look like the explosive unit we all thought it could be in the preseason. 

LaMarr Woodley answered the bell in Harrison's absence by recording 5.5 sacks, an interception, and a forced safety over the course of three weeks.  Dick LeBeau's defense started to shore up its problems stopping the run. Despite allowing 133 yards on the ground to the Jaguars, the Steelers really haven't been hampered by their inconsistency stopping the run since their Week 4 loss to the Texans. Perhaps most promisingly, the oft-beleaguered Steelers' secondary was performing better than it had in many seasons, leading the NFL in yards per game allowed through seven weeks.

The Steelers were now 5-2 and in first place in the AFC North thanks to the Ravens loss in Jacksonville on Monday night. But were the Steelers really Super Bowl-contenders? It's one thing to be a playoff-contender, but a truly elite team? Despite the three-game winning streak, it was too early to say if the Steelers really were a top-tier team, though we all knew we'd be able to answer that question more confidently after the Pats had come to town in Week 8.

Surely, the Steelers were no match for New England, right? It's one thing to get well and work on some things against the likes of the Titans and Cardinals, it's quite another to stand toe-to-toe with the New England Patriots, a team that was 6-2 against the Steelers over the past decade.

Most of the doubters spent the entire week building up the Patriots and questioning just how good the Pittsburgh Steelers really were. Tom Brady was just going to eat the Steelers secondary for lunch like he always did in the past. And Woodley's hot-streak? Brady gets rid of the ball so quickly, No. 56 wouldn't be able to get anywhere near him.

As for Roethlisberger, he would probably get his yards, but he's not in the same league as Brady. If push came to shove, Ben wouldn't be able to match Brady score-for-score. It was going to be a shoot-out, and Roethlisberger just isn't that kind of quarterback.

If the Steelers could just hang in there with the Patriots, well, that's all anyone could possibly ask for.

Well, well, well. It sure is fun to see your favorite team answer the critics' questions in such an impressive fashion. The Steelers 25-17 victory over the Patriots Sunday at Heinz Field was a thing of beauty.

Pittsburgh doubled the Patriots in yardage and time of possession, Roethlsiberger was the best quarterback on the field, LaMarr Woodely managed to harass Brady and sack him two times, which extended his AFC best sack total to 9 before being forced to the sidelines for much of the second half with a hamstring injury. And it can't be overstated how well the secondary played against the Patriots' receivers. 

Tom Brady isn't so invincible, after all. To quote Duke in Rocky IV: "He's not a machine, he's a man!" 

The Steelers are now 6-2, and that stench from week one in Baltimore is a thing of the past. The Pittsburgh Steelers, once again, have that familiar smell of a Super Bowl-contender.

It sure smells nice.