A week ago, discouraged Pittsburgh fans had their Steelers on life support. But now? Well, now not so much. In what looked like an elimination game, the Steelers on Sunday did more than score their first home victory; they may have talked the faint of heart off the ledge, too.
At least for now.
OK, so the Atlanta Falcons aren’t the most formidable opponent out there ... not with three starters missing from their defense (if you can call it that). But look what Pittsburgh accomplished with its 41-17 beatdown of a Falcons' team that reached the playoffs a year ago and the Super Bowl in 2016:
- It demonstrated it can run without Le’Veon Bell. A week ago, the Steelers had 19 yards rushing and promised to make amends by featuring James Conner more. Result: He gains 110 yards rushing, with two TDs, and adds another 75 yards receiving. “This kid runs hard, he runs physical and he’s on a mission,” said NBC’s Rodney Harrison.
- It rebooted that Ben Roethlisberger-Antonio Brown "Wi-Fi." Brown was targeted 13 times and had six catches for 101 yards and two TDs. More important, he and his quarterback silenced ... albeit temporarily ... reports of a rift. “That’s my guy,” Brown said of Big Ben. “I live and die with him.”
- More important, Pittsburgh played defense. If there’s been a recurrent criticism of the Steelers this season, it was a defense that leaked like the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Steelers allowed only seven second-half points, had six sacks and one forced fumble (recovered for a TD) and held Julio Jones to zero receptions in the first half.
Granted, that’s a one-game sample size, but at least the Steelers have the arrow pointing up for a change … and maybe, just maybe, that gets the critics off Mike Tomlin’s back.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
The Cincinnati Bengals last week said they’re “starting to believe” in themselves, and maybe it’s time we join them.
Reason: Not only are they alone at the top of the AFC North but, suddenly, they’re winning the games they never did, and the envelope, please: From early 2015 to 2017, they failed to win a game decided by one possession. But since then? Well, since then they’re 5-2.
Now, look at their last two wins. Last weekend it was a come-from-behind stunner in Atlanta, with A.J. Green scoring the winning TD with six seconds left. Now, it’s a come-from-behind defeat of Miami … and after the Bengals trailed by 17 in the second half.
Yeah, I know these guys haven’t won a playoff game since 1991, and they tend to wind down as the season wears on, but so far, so good. Plus, they’ve already beaten division runner-up Baltimore.
But what’s more is that quarterback Andy Dalton is playing some of the best football in his career, and if you don’t believe me rewind the videotape to that touchdown pass to Joe Mixon.
And so are the Bengals … for the moment.
- It’s third down, and Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota drops back to pass. But he’s pressured by Buffalo’s Trent Murphy and has to throw the ball away … just before Murphy crash lands into him, falling on top of Mariota as they drop to the ground. Two weeks ago, Murphy gets flagged. But now? Nothing. Don’t tell me officials haven’t been told to swallow their whistles … because they have.
- That doesn’t mean we don’t hear from officials because we do … only it’s from the league’s director of officiating, Al Riveron. It was Riveron who exercised his new authority to eject players when he thumbed the Chiefs’ Chris Jones for what was originally called a 15-yard penalty. Reason: Jones threw a punch. It was Riveron’s first ejection this season.
- ICYMI: Rookie quarterbacks were 4-0 Sunday after getting blanked a week ago. Better yet, Josh Rosen led Arizona to its first win.
- Five weeks into the season, it’s safe to say there won’t be a home team playing in this season’s Super Bowl. That’s another way of telling you to scratch the 1-4 Atlanta Falcons from January. It’s hard to go anywhere without a defense, and the Falcons don’t have one. They’ve allowed 121 points in each of their last three games, or an average of 40.3 per.
- A week ago, Houston wins when Indy coach Frank Reich gambles on a fourth-and-4 from his own 43 in OT. One week later, the Texans win again ... only this time when Dallas coach Jason Garrett refuses to gamble on a fourth-and-1 in OT again ... only this time from the Houston 42. I know hindsight is 20-20, but Garrett had an easier decision than Reich ... and he didn't make it. You have Zeke Elliott in the backfield and one yard to go ... I like your chances. So why didn't Garrett?
- Best thing about the Jets’ Isiah Crowell’s performance: No cringe-worthy Huggies audition after scoring on his 77-yard blast.
- Congratulations, Baker Mayfield. That’s the first time a rookie starting quarterback beat Baltimore in the John Harbaugh era. The Ravens had been 7-0 … until Sunday.
- With Patrick Mahomes finally throwing an interception (he had two Sunday), there's only one starting quarterback this season without a pick: The Saints' Drew Brees.
- So much for that vaunted Denver defense. The Broncos were so bad their best tackler was Case Keenum, who made a goal-line stop on Marcus Maye’s 100-yard-plus interception return with no time left.
- The Chiefs are the team to beat in the AFC, right? Maybe. They play in New England next week, and we know what happens when you count the Patriots out this time of year.
- Including New England (Thursday) home teams were 11-3 this week, but one question: Do we really consider the Chargers’ 26-10 defeat of Oakland a home win? Listen to the noise, and tell me it wasn’t a Raiders’ crowd … because it was.
- Now I know why the Giants passed on a quarterback with the second pick of this year’s draft: Because they’ll use the first pick of the 2019 draft on one.
- Early vote for Coach of the Year: Cleveland’s Hue Jackson. The Browns just doubled their victories the last two years.
- Consider that more than vintage Blake Bortles. Consider it another reason NOT to believe in Jacksonville. Reason: In the end, it all comes down to the quarterback, and roll the videotape to Sunday’s game, people. And remember: That was against the league's worst defense.
- OBJ said he wanted to see “heart” and “intensity” from the Giants … and, guaranteed, he will after that ESPN interview. To quote that great philosopher Bugs Bunny, “what a maroon.”
- Not only is Cleveland 2-2-1; the Browns could be … maybe should be … 5-0.
- If I'm Marshawn Lynch, I'm ticked, too. When you have a yard between you and the end zone, and Lynch is your back, there is absolutely no reason NOT TO GIVE HIM THE DAMN BALL. I thought we learned that lesson in Super Bowl XLIX. Apparently, Jon Gruden skipped that class.
- I thought Gruden was supposed to make Derek Carr better. He has more interceptions (8) through five games than he did all of 2016 (6).
- Granted, Miami’s Ryan Tannehill stunk the last two weeks, but don’t tell me he should be benched. Brock Osweiler is the backup.
- The easy answer to solving the AFC West is the winner of the Dec. 13 Chargers-Chiefs game in Kansas City. But the difficult question is: Why should we have faith in L.A. when the Bolts lost their last nine to K.C.? Answer: We shouldn’t.
- The more you watch the Philadelphia Eagles the more you start believing in Super Bowl hangovers. They have as many losses (3) through five weeks as they had all last year.
- The Legion of Boom is dead. We know that. But, Siri, riddle me this: What in the name of Deacon Jones has happened to the Rams’ defense? L.A. was supposed to be the most balanced team out there, but the last two weeks the Rams have given up 62 points and six touchdown passes. “They’re just pass rushers,” said NBC’s Harrison. “That’s all they are.”
- Looks like Mike Zimmer’s pass defense got the message. That wasn’t just a much needed victory. It ended Carson Wentz’s home winning streak at nine.
- Someone should introduce Deshaun Watson to the sideline or tell him he's not Cam Newton. Or both. With the hits he's taking out of the pocket, he won't last half the season.
- The Rams have one more win (5) than the rest of the NFC West combined (4). At this rate, they could clinch the division by late November.
FIVE THINGS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED
- That was the Browns' third OT in five games. The NFL record? Chicago with six in 1932.
- The Packers are 23-23-1 in their last 47 regular-season games.
- The AFC North is the only division where no team has a losing record.
- The Raiders have been shredded for nine gains of 40 or more yards this season, including that 44-yard TD Sunday by the Chargers’ Austin Ekeler.
- Since entering the league in 2014, Blake Bortles leads the league in interceptions with 68 and pick-sixes with 13.
SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET QUOTE
“I didn’t see this coming. We didn’t lose. We got beat.” – Jacksonville safety Tayshon Gipson after getting drilled by Kansas City.
SUNDAY’S BIGGEST WINNER
CAROLINA PK GRAHAM GANO. He didn’t just pull out a come-from-behind win with a last-second field goal. He did it with a franchise-record 63-yarder that ties former Saints’ kicker Tom Dempsey for the longest game-winning field goal ever. Gano's kick, which ties for the second longest field goal ever, spared the Panthers an embarrassing loss and their coaches hard questions about questionable last-minute calls. BTW, Gano has made 33 consecutive field goals at home.
SUNDAY’S BIGGEST LOSER
GREEN BAY PK MASON CROSBY. Meet the anti-Gano. He missed four field goals. He shanked his only extra-point try. Worse, he did it in the climate-controlled conditions of an indoor stadium. In short, he was dreadful, looking more like Mason Plumlee in cleats than a Pro Bowl kicker in what was his worst pro performance. "I'm going to evaluate it," said Crosby,"and chalk it up to an anomaly in life." Good idea. Crosby went through a similar slump in 2012, and Packers’ coach Mike McCarthy stood by him then. Let’s see what happens now.