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Steelers' offense key to playoff push in AFC North race

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The Steelers' defense wasn't having its best day on Sunday in Cincinnati. Trailing the Bengals 21-17 with just 15 minutes left to play, it was a series of big plays by the offense that led to victory and an even tighter race for the AFC North crown.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Oh what a ride these last three weeks will be. After 14 weeks of football and 13 games played by the Pittsburgh Steelers, putting your finger on what type of club this team is and where they're heading still is very much a roll of the dice. Even in the aftermath of a 42-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, to say you can really characterize this Steelers club is a reach at best.

Sunday from Cincinnati, with their season very much up in the air and after 45 minutes of play, it looked like the Steelers very well could be on life-support, down 21-17 to the Bengals who had controlled much of the play up to that point. The good Andy Dalton had shown up to that point in the game, running for a score and throwing for a pair. 

His game-breaking wide receiver A.J. Green had been abusing the Steelers' secondary, torching them for an 81-yard strike to end the third quarter and seemingly giving the home team momentum and the inside track on handing the Black-and-Gold what might have been a devastating loss.

It's a good thing the bad Andy Dalton showed up just in time to give the bludgeoned Steelers' defense a break by fumbling inside his own 30-yard line with just under 12 minutes to play and Pittsburgh down by a 21-20 mark. Two plays later, Le'Veon Bell was dancing his way into the end-zone for his second TD of the afternoon and a lead the club wouldn't relinquish.

How appropriate on the 73rd anniversary of Pearl Harbor that the Pittsburgh Steelers offense would then drop an aerial bomb on Cincinnati's defense to take command of the game on the very next series. A 94-yard strike from Ben Roethlisberger to rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant gave them a 35-21 advantage and placed a firm boot on the throat of an apparently helpless victim.

Once again, it becomes very clear that if this version of the Steelers wants to make it into January and play meaningful football, it's going to be dictated by the offense and their ability to score points in bunches. On Sunday, they got two touchdowns from outside the red-zone and went 4-for-4 inside the 20, including three TD's. That's getting it done in crunch time and was a most welcome sight.

But it's clear that the defense, in particular the secondary, is the weak link of this club. Green is one of the best wideouts in the NFL and he made mincemeat of the Steeler DBs, going for 224 yards on 11 catches and a gaudy 20.4 average per reception on 15 targets. He got 1-on-1 coverage from Ike Taylor for most of the afternoon and took full advantage of it, despite Taylor getting help from Mike Mitchell on occasion.

When you get this deep into an NFL season, it's clear that you have to go with the guys you've got. Taylor just doesn't have it anymore, but what are the Steelers to do at this point other than bench him and start Brice McCain? It's not like there are many starting-caliber cornerbacks hanging out at the NFL's unemployment office waiting to be signed.

What was promising on Sunday defense-wise was the play of linebacker Arthur Moats who recorded four total tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery that led to the go-ahead touchdown in the decisive fourth quarter.  It has been proven over the years that, when this defense can force turnovers, the offense generally is there to make good on turning them into points.

It's that offense which must carry this football team through the final three weeks if they want to make the post-season. Up next is an awful Atlanta Falcons club, but one that easily could play the role of spoiler like so many sub-.500 clubs have done in recent years.

John Phillips is a radio personality for 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh and a columnist for Behind The Steel Curtain. Check him out on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.