Steelers Are Our Only Hope for Breaking the AFC's Patriots-Broncos Logjam

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 16, 2014

Kathy Willens/AP Images

We all know that AFC stands for American Football Conference. It might as well also stand for Another Foregone Conclusion. 

The Broncos and Patriots have clinched their divisions again, as all humankind predicted they would at the start of the year. The Colts also clinched the AFC South, setting the stage for Brady-Manning XVII after Andrew Luck's Inconsistency Brigade crashes against one of their shores. The AFC playoff field promises to be full of Bengals, Chiefs and Ravens—familiar boss battles from the lower levels, all easily beaten by the right button combinations. Start baking your Brady-Manning cookies now and turn to the NFC if you want surprises.

But wait…what about the Steelers?

Kathy Willens/AP Images

The Steelers have been out of the playoff picture for a few years, but at the start of the decade, Ben Roethlisberger was just as likely to reach the Super Bowl as Brady or Manning. Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Troy Polamalu and a large chunk of the organization have championship experience to burn.

The same can be said of the Ravens, who share the Steelers' 9-5 record, but Baltimore's 2014 resume is full of unimpressive wins and problematic losses to the Bengals, Colts and Chargers. The Steelers, who are more likely to overlook a bad opponent than they are to stumble against a good one, have beaten the Bengals and Colts convincingly. The Ravens look like just another AFC welterweight; the Steelers are a heavyweight that sometimes lets its guard down.

The 2014 Steelers are not like the Super Bowl teams of 2005, 2008 and 2010, nor do they resemble the .500 teams of recent years. They are more vulnerable on defense, but much more balanced and dangerous on offense. Their ability to beat the superpowers at their own game gives them the potential to throw a monkey wrench into the AFC's cycle of predictability.

If we want a break from the same old Brady-Manning AFC Championship, the Steelers may be our only hope.

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates with the Vince Lombardi trophy after the Steelers won 27-23 against the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadiu
Al Bello/Getty Images

Flawed, but not fatally

There is no sugarcoating it: The Steelers' pass defense is awful. They rank 25th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game (252.9), 31st in passing yards per play (7.71) and 29th in overall pass defense, according to Football Outsiders. William Gay is the team's only decent cornerback; Cortez Allen was terrible before getting shelved with a thumb injury, Ike Taylor has been in steady decline for years, and journeyman Brice McCain has become a stopgap starter with no depth behind him. The Steelers' pass rush made life easier for the secondary for most of our lifetimes, but this season, it has just 24 sacks.

A team with a lousy pass defense challenging the Brady-Manning status quo? Nonsense, you say. But there are other factors to consider.

The Steelers' greatest weakness is the deep pass. They lead the league with 15 passing plays allowed of 40-plus yards and are tied for the ninth-highest total of 20-plus-yard passes allowed with 49. The Patriots are not a deep passing team; they have just eight passes of 40-plus yards this season (tied for 15th) and 44 passes of 20-plus yards (tied for 16th), and most Patriots "deep" passes are really catch-and-run plays, not bombs. The Steelers' biggest defensive weakness lines up with one of the Patriots' few offensive weaknesses.

The Broncos rank second in the NFL with 57 passes of 20-plus yards, so Peyton Manning is more likely to expose the Steelers secondary deep than Tom Brady. But the Steelers defense is not nearly as inept against the run as they are against the pass. Their 4.4 yards allowed per rush do not look very good (26th in the NFL), but Pittsburgh's defensive statistics against the run are inflated by some poor early-season performances. The Steelers rank seventh in the NFL in stopping short-yardage and goal-line runs, according to Football Outsiders, and the team allows just 3.7 yards per rush in those cases, according to NFLGSIS.com (subscription required). No one will confuse the Steelers' run defense with the Lions run defense, but it can keep opponents out of the end zone in goal-to-go situations and force some three-and-outs.

There's no foolproof way to stop the Broncos offense. But turn Manning into a one-dimensional passing machine, particularly in cold weather, and you have a shot.

The Steelers have no hope of slugging out any 17-7, Seahawks-style victories against the conference powerhouses anyway. Their best bet is to win the kind of shootout teams like the Chiefs and Bengals have little chance of winning against the Patriots or Broncos. No AFC team is better equipped to outscore Brady and Manning, thanks to the potent combination of Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, tons of receiving weapons and an offensive line that is finally holding up its end of the bargain.

Better blocking, better balance

The Steelers lead the NFL with 424.9 offensive yards per game and 6.2 yards per play. Football Outsiders ranks them third in the NFL in passing and ninth in rushing. They have scored 30 or more points seven times this season. They are built to win shootouts, and their offense has gotten better as the season has progressed.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

The biggest difference between this year's Steelers and the team that finished .500 in 2012 and 2013 is the offensive line.

New line coach Mike Munchak has finally restored order to a unit that fell apart at the first sign of trouble in years past. Maurkice Pouncey's return from an ACL injury and the development of guard David DeCastro have stabilized the interior. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum still has some rough patches against top pass-rushers, but he has developed into a fine zone-stretch blocker under Munchak's tutelage. The improved line makes the Steelers' running game more consistent than that of the Patriots, while Bell's open-field quickness gives Pittsburgh a big-play capability that C.J. Anderson and the Broncos lack.

Roethlisberger not only has a little more time and better run support than he has had in previous seasons, but he also has many more weapons. Antonio Brown is the star, of course, and Heath Miller has bounced back from an injury-marred 2013 season, but Big Ben has many other options.

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 30:  Le'Veon Bell #26 reacts alongside Ramon Foster #73 and Maurkice Pouncey #53 of the Pittsburgh Steelers after picking up a first down during the first quarter against the New Orleans Saints at Heinz Field on November 30, 2014
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Second-year receiver Markus Wheaton is a student of the game and a top possession target in the making. Rookie Martavis Bryant is an unrefined matchup nightmare, a 6'4" burner who can beat single coverage for 80-yard bombs while the defense focuses on stopping Brown and Bell. After years of ignoring his running backs in the passing game, Roethlisberger has found Bell 76 times; Football Outsiders ranks Bell as the most productive receiving back in the NFL. The Steelers' passing game is effective on all three levels and from sideline to sideline.

There is no easy answer for defending Pittsburgh, which can test the stoutness of a defensive line or the depth of a secondary. This team can beat opponents deep—its 13 pass plays of 40-plus yards rank fourth in the NFL—and its running backs have been stuffed on a league-low 15 percent of runs, meaning the Steelers can also churn out yardage in smaller chunks. Roethlisberger can scratch itches along the deep sidelines that Brady and Manning have trouble reaching these days.

Balanced, playoff-tested and cold-weather ready, this is the kind of offense that can protect a lead with ball control in the fourth quarter or strike quickly when trailing late in the game.

It won't be easy, and the Steelers would hardly be favorites in a playoff matchup in Foxborough or Denver. But the Steelers can do things the other AFC wannabes cannot, making them the conference's most interesting gate-crashers.

An outside chance

Like most observers with no rooting interest, I am picking the Broncos and Patriots to play for the AFC Championship. And while Brady-Manning has dragged on a little too long, like a never-ending series of Hobbit movies, there are worse fates than watching one more chapter of one of the best sports rivalries in history.

Dec 14, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant (10) carries the ball as he is tackled by Atlanta Falcons free safety Dwight Lowery (20) at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

But a little variety and intrigue would make things interesting. The problem is finding a team that can provide that intrigue.

The Colts look ready to turn the ball over and get stuffed on the ground against the two superpowers, losing another 31-24 or 42-20 game. The Chiefs surprised the Patriots early in the season but won't find the pass protection nearly as sloppy in a rematch. The Ravens will suffer one of their signature offensive brownouts on the road; this year's Broncos won't bail them out with bad special teams and dumb late-game errors. The Bengals have a proven track record of tucking tail against the big dogs. All of the fringe candidates are on the fringe for a reason.

The Steelers are different: deeply flawed but dangerous, far better now than they were in mid-October and completely unlikely to get the yips at the sight of a hostile crowd or Hall of Fame quarterback. They are the team the superpowers don't want to face in the postseason. There are going to be a lot of Chiefs and Bengals fans in Denver and Foxborough in the final two weeks, as the Broncos and Patriots (and many fans) will hope the other mid-tier contenders squash a Steelers run before it starts.

The Steelers will force their way into the playoffs. Once there, they will do some damage. They may not quite have enough defense to stop the inevitable, but it will be a lot of fun to watch them try.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

Football Outsiders stats are through Week 14; NFL stats do not include Monday night's game.


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