We might look at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 27-12 win over the Washington Redskins on Sunday, their second straight victory and just dismiss it as the fruit of a soft schedule—beating the Bengals and Redskins two straight weeks can’t count for that much, given the teams are a combined 6-7 in games when they aren’t playing Pittsburgh. But it’s the way the Steelers are winning that has to give the rest of the AFC pause.
Mike Tomlin seems to have found a running game. After a preseason and early schedule marked by injuries and inconsistency in the offensive line, and then an injury to Rashard Mendenhall, the Steeler running game was positively pathetic. Now Jonathan Dwyer is inserted into the backfield, he’s ripped off consecutive 100-yard games and lo and behold, Pittsburgh is winning, looking good doing it and only a game back of Baltimore in the AFC North.
The Steelers did virtually everything well on Sunday in the home win over Washington. They stopped the run, with the previous productive Alfred Morris held under control with 59 yards. They contained Robert Griffin III and let RG3’s receivers beat themselves with dropped passes. Pittsburgh just played sound football, got a steady, if unspectacular game from Ben Roethlisberger and churned out an efficient win. That’s formula we’ve seen often out of this franchise.
Pittsburgh is now 4-3, in good position to make a push to the playoffs and they still have both games left with 5-2 Baltimore. While the Steelers do play the New York Giants on the road this week, the Ravens also have the Giants ahead of them (albeit at home) and Baltimore must also play improving Denver, a team Pittsburgh is finished with.
I wasn’t high on the Steelers at the start of the year, and if not for the weakness of the AFC in general and this division in particular, with all of Baltimore’s injuries, I don’t know that I’d be responding this positively to their recent play. But this is a conference that’s open to teams that can get their problems fixed and Tomlin has made some big strides with his team.
Let’s wrap up the rest of NFL Week 8 with a look at each division…
NFC EAST: Can someone please memo Jason Garrett and tell the Dallas head coach that when you throw the ball 62 times a game you’re probably going to get beat? Yes, I get they fell behind the New York Giants 23-0. It was still within 23-10 by halftime and the Cowboys had the lead early in the fourth quarter. There was plenty of time to get Felix Jones involved in the offense. Dallas didn’t, and consequently lost a 29-24 game at home. With the Cowboys, Eagles and Redskins all sub-.500 now, New York is looking home free early at 6-2.
NFC NORTH: Could the division’s favorites have made it look any uglier? Chicago did nothing well in beating Carolina 23-22 at home, relying on another massive mistake by Cam Newton, a pick-six deep in his own end. Green Bay can’t play the injuries excuse for their sloppy 24-15 win over Jacksonville at home—the Packers have key players out, but none as important to them as injured Maurice Jones-Drew was to Jacksonville.
Minnesota played a poor defensive game for the first time this season in losing to Tampa Bay, leaving the door open for Detroit to pick up a little ground, as Matthew Stafford was impressive against a good defense in beating Seattle 28-24 at home.
NFC SOUTH: Tampa Bay’s win over Minnesota was one of the most impressive anywhere in the league, as the Bucs overcame playing on Thursday night on the road, and got a big night both rushing and receiving from Doug Martin. At 3-4, the Bucs are right in the mix of the race for the final playoff berth in the NFC and this one will look good in the tiebreaker scenarios.
NFC WEST: San Francisco established that—no matter how competitive this division might be looking—that they are still the bully on the block, as they positively abused Arizona. The 49ers shut down what’s already a lousy Cardinal running game without Beanie Wells, ran the ball themselves and kept Larry Fitzgerald under wraps.
With Seattle’s defense letting them down in Detroit—the Seahawks got a good game from Marshawn Lynch and quarterback Russell Wilson had one of his best statistical outings, but the usually stout defense couldn’t contain Stafford—the 49ers took a two-game divisional lead at 6-2, have wins over both Arizona and Seattle in the last two weeks and completed a great day for their home city on top of Sunday night’s World Series clincher.
AFC EAST: Is Miami ready to make a run at New England? There was no faulting the performance of the Patriots, who destroyed St. Louis 45-7 over in London and got to a much-needed bye week for their injured players. But the Dolphins, at 4-3, are tied with the Pats in the loss column and completely took apart the Jets on the road. Miami is not statistically dominant—a nice way of saying you look at the box score and try and figure out how the hell they won—but they play good defense and are finding ways to stay in games.
AFC SOUTH: In last week’s recap we talked about the potential rise of Indianapolis and Tennessee as wild-card contenders. The Colts won the head-to-head battle, taking a 19-13 win in overtime because they ran the ball effectively and Andrew Luck managed the game like a veteran. At 4-3, the Colts would be tied with the Dolphins and Steelers for the two wild-card spots if the season ended today.
AFC WEST: How do Norv Turner and A.J. Smith still have jobs? The Charger coach and general manager aren’t the most incompetent duo to ever work together, but they are certainly the longest-running. The 7-6 loss to Cleveland on Sunday hit a nadir. The Chargers and Raiders might be 3-4, but the gulf between them and Denver looks positively huge, as the Broncos played an outstanding all-around game in pounding New Orleans. They ran the ball with ease, Peyton Manning was locked in and I think we can give Denver the AFC West.
So how many division races look to have clear front-runners? I’m looking at the NFC East (Giants), NFC South (Falcons), NFC West (49ers), AFC South (Texans) and AFC West (Broncos). And in spite of what I wrote above about Miami, we can also include the AFC East (Patriots). That leaves the AFC North & NFC North as the only divisions that look truly open, with the other six dependent on a sudden collapse.