Steelers prove AFC is wide open after dominating Patriots

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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PITTSBURGH –- They're old. They're slow. And it's over.

That's what NFL Network analyst Warren Sapp said last month about the Pittsburgh Steelers, and maybe it's time to admit he goofed. In fact, after watching Pittsburgh win its fourth straight to move to the top of the AFC, I suggest the former All-Pro defensive tackle find another team to pick on.

Like New England.

Yeah, I thought the Steelers were old and slow on defense, too. But I never thought they were out of anything -- not when I looked at their schedule. And now I know it because they didn't beat New England on Sunday as much as they annihilated them.

You name it, the Steelers were better. Offense. Defense. Special teams. Coaching. Things were so bad that New England couldn't even get its kickoffs straight. When it tried an onside, it failed to go the necessary 10 yards. When it tried a trick free kick, the ball wound up out of bounds.

"We had to do a better job in every area," said losing coach Bill Belichick.

That's one way of putting it. Another is: They stunk.

Quarterback Tom Brady wasn't Tom Terrific, and their defense ran a clinic as to why it ranks dead last overall and against the pass. Again and again Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger found wide-open receivers, and again and again he pushed the Steelers to long, productive drives.

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On the first series, he converted four third downs as Pittsburgh went 68 yards on 11 plays. On the second, it was 16 plays and 72 yards. There was a 14-play drive that covered 80 ... and a 10-play series that covered 76 ... and an 11-play possession that went 56.

I don't think I need to paint a picture. Pittsburgh had its way with the Patriots, and that's not how old, slow teams that are finished are supposed to be handled.

Which means Warren Sapp was wrong.

All I know is that Pittsburgh was determined to make a statement with Sunday's performance, and it did -- the hard way. I'm not talking about all those passes Roethlisberger threw. That was the easy part -- especially against New England's porous secondary. Nope, I'm talking about playing without three of its veteran stars -- linebackers James Harrison and James Farrior and wide receiver Hines Ward -- then subtracting start linebacker LaMarr Woodley in the second half.

Yet, still they drilled an opponent that had beaten them in six of their last seven tries with Brady. Roethlisberger later said it was too soon to talk about delivering messages, but I disagree. This one was aimed not only at New England but the rest of the AFC.

"Everybody across the league, everybody on TV, was counting us out," said Woodley, who had two sacks, "and pretty much saying these last couple of wins were against teams we were supposed to beat; [that] we weren't going up against elite quarterbacks.

"It was everything negative toward the Pittsburgh Steelers. There was nothing positive coming out all week. There was Brady owns the Steelers, and Brady owns [defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau. There was all this talk about their offense against our defense, but nobody said anything about our offense and the things we were capable of doing."

Guaranteed, there will be now. The Steelers controlled their opponent by controlling the clock -- nearly 40 minutes for the game and a whopping 13:36 in the first quarter -- and that's a sure sign they're not old, slow or finished. New England, on the other hand, has enormous problems on defense, so big and so significant that not even Brady may be able to overcome them.

Granted, it has been through games like this before. I think back to last year's demolition in Cleveland, for example. But if this team isn't better than last year's -- and, frankly, it looks worse -- how does it go deep in the playoffs? It didn't a year ago when Brady was the league MVP. Now, it just got flattened by a club Brady once owned, and tell me that doesn't tell us something about the state of the AFC.

It does, and what it says is that there is no team to beat anymore.

Once, I thought that team was New England because I believe Brady cures virtually any shortcoming. Only after watching Roethlisberger dissect a soft and ineffective zone ... after watching a makeshift Pittsburgh defense thwart Brady ... after watching the Steelers hammer New England ... I only believe that Warren Sapp was wrong.

"We can be as good as we want to be," Roethlisberger said. "When we don't beat ourselves or stop ourselves we can be dangerous."

I'll second that, and Sapp should, too. Because Pittsburgh just proved its critics wrong, and I'll gladly admit to being in that club. I didn't think these guys would win the division, and I didn't think they would make a dent in the playoffs. Now I'm not so sure because now the AFC is wide open, and the team that is supposed to be the Steelers' nemesis is a nemesis no more.

"You always take it personal when no one's giving you credit," Woodley said. "When they say somebody owns you, everybody's looking at the past. The past is the past. You have to look at the future and what's going on today, and that's what we went out there and displayed."

They displayed more than that. They demonstrated they are better -- way better -- than New England, which better find a defense before January. Otherwise, I know whom I like the next time these two meet, and it's not the team that's old and slow.

"When I was in college," said Woodley, "they said, 'The Steelers were getting old, and that this team is out of it.' That's every year. When you're the dominating team in the league, everyone's always trying to find a way to talk negative about you. But every year we seem to prove everybody wrong by going out there and getting wins and playing in the big game at the end of the year."

Consider that a warning. New England should.

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