5 Reasons Why Pittsburgh Steelers Are the Team to Beat in AFC

Mike BatistaContributor IDecember 18, 2011

5 Reasons Why Pittsburgh Steelers Are the Team to Beat in AFC

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers are again pumping out wins in December just like shopping mall sound systems are pumping out Christmas carols.

    When you can buy egg nog in every grocery store and see your breath when you step outside, it's nature's way of telling you that the Steelers are gearing up for another run at an AFC title.

    The Steelers' last three Super Bowl teams all lost just once in December. They went 4-1 in 2005 and 3-1 in 2008 and 2010.

    The Steelers are 2-0 this December. They face an uphill climb in the hilly city of San Francisco Monday night. If they don't have Ben Roethlisberger, it will be a hurdle as high as the Golden Gate Bridge. Then they're home against the sad-sack Rams on Christmas Eve.

    At worst, it's not too much to ask for the Steelers to turn in another 3-1 December and carry that momentum into "January Football," as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin puts it, and successfully defend their AFC crown.

Better Defensive Backs

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    In the aftermath of Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers' secondary was perhaps their biggest concern heading into the 2011 season.

    The Steelers have turned that weakness into a strength, enough of a strength to get another shot at Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

    In 2011's No-Brainer of the Year, the Steelers re-signed cornerback Ike Taylor after the lockout ended, and he's had opposing receivers on lock-down this season.

    Not only is Taylor as dominating as ever, but opposing quarterbacks no longer can pick on any Steelers cornerback not named Ike Taylor.

    Three of the Steelers' last four wins might not have happened without game-saving interceptions.

    William Gay, toasted like a campfire marshmallow in the Super Bowl, secured the win in Cincinnati with an interception on the Bengals' final drive.

    Then in Pittsburgh, with the Browns poised to take the lead in the final four minutes, Gay swung the game's momentum 180 degrees with an end-zone pick.

    Gay has 10 passes defensed this season, seven of them coming during the Steelers' current four-game winning streak.

    Keenan Lewis, a step away from the waiver wire during training camp, finally gets it this season. He spared the Steelers the humiliation of a Tyler Palko game-winning drive with his interception in Kansas City.

    Even at safety, Ryan Mundy has just as many interceptions as Troy Polamalu this season. OK, it's only one, but I'm just saying.

    The Steelers have forced 10 turnovers in the last four games.

    The Steelers were hard enough to beat when they weren't taking the ball away. They went 6-3 despite forcing just four turnovers through the first nine games of the season, the fewest in the history of the NFL.

    Now they are taking the ball away.

    Watch out, AFC.

LaMarr Woodley

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    The Steelers have gone 3-1 without linebacker LaMarr Woodley in the lineup. That doesn't count their 35-7 win over the Bengals in Pittsburgh, when he started but wasn't much of a factor.

    Woodley was the Steelers' best defensive player, with nine sacks in the first eight games of the season, before he hurt his hamstring.

    The Steelers' ability to not miss a beat without him is the mark of a championship team.

    Not only have the Steelers been winning without Woodley, but their defense hasn't allowed an opponent to reach double-digits on the scoreboard since their 24-17 win in Cincinnati on Nov. 13. In their last three games, the Steelers have allowed nine, seven and three points.

    When Woodley returns, the prospect of an improved pass rush coupled with a now formidable secondary should get any Steelers fan as excited as a kid on Christmas morning.

    It will make the Steelers that much more difficult to beat in the playoffs.

Max Starks Is This Year's Flozell Adams

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    Maybe Flozell Adams should have been called "Patch Adams" in 2010.

    Adams patched up the Steelers' offensive line at right tackle when Willie Colon was lost for the season with an injury. It's one of the under-the-radar reasons the Steelers reached the Super Bowl.

    Like Adams last season, Max Starks was out of work when the Steelers called this season. Fortunately, they were able to hit the "Undo" button on the mistake of releasing Starks in training camp. They needed a left tackle after Jonathan Scott got hurt, and Starks was still available.

    Starks has helped stabilize the Steelers' offensive line since rejoining the team in Week 5. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 14 times in the first four games, and has since been sacked 21 times in the last nine games. Don't forget, too, that not all those sacks are the O-line's fault, considering the way Roethlisberger plays.

    Even if Roethlisberger, who is fighting a high-ankle sprain, does play the last three games of the regular season, there's a chance he could be sacked less than 40 times for the season. That would be an accomplishment considering he was sacked more than 40 times for four straight seasons before sitting out the first four games last season.

    So while the Steelers' offensive line is still a work in progress, it's slowly and steadily improving and won't be a liability in the playoffs.

Who Else?

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    Last season, the Jets did the Steelers' dirty work and beat the Patriots in the playoffs.

    The Steelers can do the job themselves this season if necessary. They've shown they can beat the Patriots this season by picking apart their secondary. They can do it again even if they have to go to New England for the playoffs, which might be the case if the Steelers are a wild-card team.

    Then there's Tebowmania. A wild-card game in Denver looms as a real possibility for the Steelers if they can't win the AFC North. Sorry, Broncos fans, but the NFL is not a flavor-of-the-month league. Tebow's not playoff-tested. The Steelers are.

    Despite their regular-season loss there, Houston shouldn't be a problem for the Steelers, either. The opportunity to game-plan against rookie quarterback T.J. Yates would be like Christmas in January for LeBeau.

    The Jets are all talk. The Steelers own the Bengals and Titans, and the Raiders did better with Jason Campbell than they've done with Carson Palmer.

Oh Yeah, the Ravens

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    No, I haven't forgotten about the Ravens.

    You might ask how I can say with a straight face that the Steelers are the team to beat in the AFC when they've lost twice to the Ravens.

    I would respond by asking how, according to nfl.com, Joe Flacco can be complaining about the coverage Tim Tebow is getting.

    Flacco's eyes should be on the prize, not on Tebow's press clippings. That lack of focus is the first sign that the Steelers can handle the Ravens if they see them in the playoffs.

    The Ravens didn't have to deal with LaMarr Woodley when they beat the Steelers 23-20 at Pittsburgh in Week 9. If they get the Steelers in the playoffs, they'd have to deal with him as well as a tougher William Gay.

    Gay was the culprit when Flacco threw to Torrey Smith for the winning touchdown in Pittsburgh. Since then, Gay has been the football equivalent of a bullpen closer, with two comeback-foiling interceptions late in games.

    Also, while the Ravens' two wins over the Steelers this season are all well and good, the playoffs are a different animal. The Ravens won't fully flush the Steelers out of their head until they beat them in the playoffs.

    There's a good chance Steelers-Ravens III would take place in Baltimore.

    Not a problem. The Steelers won crucial December games in Baltimore on the way to their last two Super Bowls.

    Winning at Baltimore in the winter chill is as much a part of Steelers Super Bowl seasons as Michael Buffer's "Let's get ready to rumble" at championship fights.

    The famous ring announcer might want to get that throat ready for another clash between heavyweights in the black and gold corner and the purple and white corner.