We find out starting today whether the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense really is getting old and creaky.
The statistics say Pittsburgh's defense is rock solid. The Steelers rank third in both yards and points allowed and second against the pass. But the Steelers have benefited from a soft schedule. Their five wins are against teams with a combined record of 8-24. Their two losses were to Baltimore and Houston.
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots roll into Heinz Field today in what looks like a bad matchup for the Steelers. Brady is 6-1 in his career against Pittsburgh with 14 touchdown passes, three interceptions and a 104.8 passer rating.
The Pats don't worry about balance in the least against Dick LeBeau's Pittsburgh defense. In Brady's last six games against Pittsburgh, the Pats have passed on 67 percent of their plays. New England is around 55 percent passing overall in the Brady era.
The Pats simply refuse to bang their heads against a brick wall -- Pittsburgh's stout run defense. Pittsburgh always has won without superstar cornerbacks. Pressure on the QB and zone coverage is their style. The Pats will take their chances matching up their receivers with Pittsburgh's unspectacular corners -- Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden and Randall Gay (a Pats castoff).
Steelers sackman James Harrison is hurt. LeBeau likes to sit back and play coverage against Brady. He may be forced to attack more, but that will expose the corners to more one-on-one coverage. It's a problem for Pittsburgh, which has a bunch of key defenders getting well into their 30s (James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brad Keisel, Chris Hoke, Larry Foote and Taylor).
After this week, Pittsburgh has a grudge rematch at home against Baltimore and then plays at Cincinnati. (Baltimore beat Pittsburgh in the opener, 35-7.) We'll know if the Steelers are slipping significantly by then.
Regardless of whether the Steelers are fraudulent title contenders, they stand a fair chance to make the playoffs, even if they lose the next three straight. The AFC North benefits from the "soft crossovers" on the schedule -- facing the AFC South and NFC West. Pittsburgh probably can get to 10 wins even if it loses to the Pats, Ravens and Bengals.
The Chiefs have won three straight after a miserable start. After opening with lopsided losses to Buffalo (41-7) and Detroit (48-3), and then losing their third game, Chiefs coach Todd Haley gave his team some inspiration from the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers. He showed them that team's NFL Films highlight video. The Steelers that season lost their opener, 51-0, to Cleveland and then dropped their second game, 41-10, at Cincinnati.
But in one of Chuck Noll's finest coaching jobs, they rebounded to finish 9-7 and win a playoff game. Haley's father, Dick, was director of player personnel for that Pittsburgh team.
"I thought it was such a great picture of how low and as much despair as you could feel, and you could see it on the tape," said Todd Haley.
"You were hearing some of the same things that we had heard. And to see how it ends, with the pure joy of guys -- grown men jumping up and down who were able to turn a really bad, bad start into a great season."
Now for a dose of reality. The Chiefs have rebounded by beating Minnesota, Indianapolis and Oakland. The Vikes and Colts are a combined 1-13. Oakland was in disarray last week due to injuries.
Monday night's home game against San Diego (4-2) is huge for the Chiefs, because it starts a three-game home stretch (Miami and Denver are next up). San Diego should cruise to the AFC West title if it beats the Chiefs because it would be hard for the Chargers not to get to 10 wins. But if the Chargers don't win, the West may be a horse race to the end.
The great AP
Minnesota back Adrian Peterson leads the league in rushing yards (712) and rushing touchdowns (eight) this season. Peterson, who has made the Pro Bowl the last three years, needs 38 rushing yards today at Carolina to get his fifth consecutive season with at least 750 rush yards and eight touchdowns. Only Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith and Jet LaDainian Tomlinson have done that.
*With a victory today, Buffalo would become the eighth team in NFL history to win its first four home games after starting the previous season 0-4 at home. It has been done four times since 2000.
*Dallas' offense is producing, but the Cowboys need to be worried about their "middle three" against the strong defenses. Dallas is shaky at center (Phil Costa) and guard (Bill Nagy and Kyle Kosier). Costa and Nagy had a rough time with the big Pats defenders a couple weeks ago.
*NFL teams are averaging 44.9 points per game. That's the most through seven weeks since 1970. Nine teams are averaging at least 25 points per game, on pace to tie 2008 for the highest number of teams at that level.
*Rex Ryan gave his Jets six straight days off on the team's bye this week. Coaches are required to give their players four straight days off. New York will be rested for the Bills next Sunday.
*Baltimore's Lee Evans was expected to miss his sixth straight game today due to a badly sprained ankle. The Ravens visit Pittsburgh next week and would love to have the ex-Bill back for that rivalry.
*The Patriots are allowing 8.47 yards per pass attempt this season. That's worst in the league and the worst since the 0-16 Lions in 2008 (8.82).