The argument against the Steelers as the NFL's best team is an easy one: they lost to the Bears and Jaguars, and good teams don't do that. But in a year where no one wants to emerge as a great team, the Steelers might have the best chance of anyone because of how complete they are, or at least how complete they can be when everything is clicking.
They were clicking across the board when they beat up on their little stepbrother Sunday, manhandling the Bengals 29-14 and reminding everyone of the significant gap in talent in the AFC North.
Cincinnati mustered all of 16 yards of offense in the second half of the game, getting suffocated by the Steelers' defense. Andy Dalton was under fire, getting sacked four times and hit over and over. Down the stretch, it felt like Pittsburgh treated him like a rag doll.
Offensively, we know what the Steelers are capable of. They have the best running back in football in Le'Veon Bell, a guy who is capable of lithely moving through traffic and also punishing defenders. Come for the juke moves, stay for the stiff arm that is going to make for a less-than-fun Monday for Dre Kirkpatrick.
When you have the best running back, you're not supposed to have the best wide receiver. The Steelers do, with Antonio Brown, who scored another touchdown on Sunday. They also have an emerging young wideout in JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has more receiving touchdowns prior to his 21st birthday than any other player in NFL history.
The former USC star also has some incredible celebratory sensibilities.
Pittsburgh was feeling so confident it just went right ahead and ran a fake punt up 26-14 and looking to bury the Bengals.
Mike Tomlin's face at the end of that was incredible, although it feels like the play was based on something they saw on the field, not necessarily a "let's bury these guys in cruel fashion" move. Whatever the case, the Steelers have a compelling argument for being the best team in the NFL.
There are not many teams in the NFL that can boast a top-five unit across the board. The Steelers might not have that at every position, but they have an upper echelon quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, an elite running back, an elite group of wideouts, a highly-rated offensive line and a defensive that is chock-full of first-round picks at every position. They can put serious pressure on quarterbacks up front and force teams to make bad mistakes that lead to turnovers on the back end.
As I pointed out in this space last week, we won't recognize the NFL in 10 weeks. Teams that are good might stink, teams that stink might be good and the divisions are going to have drastic shifts in terms of who is up top and who is at the bottom. There is no safe harbor when it comes to in-season NFL predictions, but the Steelers are a pretty decent bet.
They sport talent across the board and play in a division where the only threat is a Bengals team they just quickly neutralized. Expecting this team to dominate every bad squad they face is folly, because history tells us otherwise. But the Steelers would be my pick as the NFL's best team seven weeks in.
Saints' division to win?
Life comes at you fast in the NFL and the New Orleans Saints, who looked dead in the water at 0-2 after being blown out by the Patriots at home, blinked and found themselves in the driver's seat for the NFC South. It's a remarkable turnaround for a team that appeared to lack the same offensive firepower we've come to expect while still maintaining the defensive drainage we've come to know and love.
Instead New Orleans, now 4-2 and in sole possession of first place in the NFC South, looks like the Satints' most-balanced team since Sean Payton and Drew Brees brought a title to the Bayou. The Saints are a top-10 team in terms of point differential, currently sitting at plus-38, and have a point differential of plus-64 over the course of their four-game winning streak.
The victory on Sunday in Green Bay wasn't as impressive as it could have been, considering that Aaron Rodgers was out and Brett Hundley was in. That made life substantially easier for the Saints, and the Packers still tried to make it an upset -- two interceptions of Brees in the first half put the Saints in a 14-7 hole at the break.
As good as Adrian Peterson looked in his initial game with the Cardinals, there is no doubt this offense might be prepared to take off now that they're not worried about feeding AP carries. Mark Ingram's presence has exploded, with the longtime Saints back recording 47 carries for 119 yards over the last two weeks. Ingram's versatility coupled with rookie Alvin Kamara, who has been a consistent part of the gameplan over the past month, allows the Saints to run and pass fairly seamlessly. Peterson on the field was a tell, but now the offense is more versatile and fluid.
The passing game can get better too. Michael Thomas has yet to produce a big game. Willie Snead has not played much because of suspension and injury. Ted Ginn's starting to look very comfortable in this offense. Brandon Coleman has been a pleasant surprise. Do not believe anything you ever hear about Brees' skills declining. He might be able to play another five years too.
Defensively is where the Saints have made leaps. New Orleans gave up 38 points to the Lions last week, but that was largely a result of some wild plays and defensive scores. In the three other games during their streak, New Orleans allowed a total of 30 points. Over the course of those four games, the Saints are allowing opponents just 4.7 yards per play on offense.
Marshon Lattimore is a tremendous addition to a secondary that is, somehow, a strength. That has never been the case. But now they have playmakers.
When you look around the division, you can see a path for New Orleans to take down the title. The Panthers are a Jekyll-and-Hyde mess that just lost to the Bears, despite Chicago attempting less than 10 passes. The Buccaneers have multiple veteran defenders in open Twitter mutiny over their playing time. The Falcons lost to the Patriots on Sunday night and are in full offensive regression.
New Orleans was 0-2 and the worst team in the division a month ago. The tables turned quickly.
John Fox fever dream
The score of the Bears' 17-3 win over the Panthers on Sunday is not indicative of what happened in the game. Chicago was a better team and the Panthers were pretty terrible overall, but don't be fooled into believing the Bears became some offensive juggernaut that beat up on the Panthers talented defense.
Quite the contrary: the Bears did nothing on offense all day long and still managed to pull out a victory. In fact, they did so little on offense that the Bears became the first team since 2011 to attempt less than 10 passes and still pull out a victory. The last team to do so? The 2011 Denver Broncos, who were led by Tim Tebow and coached by ... wait for it ... John Fox. That's right, Fox is the last coach to pull off such a feat, but that's not the best part.
The best part is that since 2000, there are eight NFL games where teams have attempted less than 10 passes and won, including Sunday's win for the Bears, and Fox has coached three of them.
Other highlights from Sunday's win: Mitchell Trubisky completed four (!) passes, the Bears converted five first downs, Chicago went 1-for-9 on third-down conversions (11 percent), the Bears managed 153 total yards.
Credit Eddie Jackson for most of the points, as the rookie safety managed to produce 14 points all by himself, becoming the first player in NFL history with two defensive touchdowns of 75 yards or more in the same game (and the first rookie with two defensive touchdowns of 75 yards or more in a single season).
What's really wild about Jackson's big day? A year ago today he broke his leg and saw his college career end. The injury would cause him to drop in the draft.
This is not knocking Chicago, it's just worth noting that while they won, they didn't do much on offense. Their style of winning -- limiting Trubisky's exposure, busting out gadget plays, hoping for defensive scores -- is not exactly sustainable. But the Bears are now 3-4 and sort of right there in an ugly NFC North with no real lockjob contender. Their schedule is tough, but don't count them out.
The Colts are contenders (for the top pick)
If you think you've had a bad week, Chuck Pagano's got you beat. The Colts coach lost on Monday night in Nashville to the Titans, had Andrew Luck shut down midweek during his recovery from shoulder surgery and then he lost again on Sunday in extremely embarrassing fashion, getting shut out by the Jaguars at home.
It was a historical moment, of sorts.
The game was described by the Indy Star as a "new low" and the players didn't really disagree.
Q: Does this feel like a low point?— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) October 22, 2017
Jack Doyle: "It kinda does, to be honest with you."
Bonus: T.Y. Hilton called out the offensive line and told them to block.
There are problems within the problem, too. Pagano, who has been swimming upstream to save his job for nearly half a decade now, had another facepalm-worthy moment on Sunday involving a challenge. It was his second egg of the season, something that should not be acceptable for someone who is in his sixth season as a head coach of an NFL team.
Previously Pagano cost his team four points by failing to a challenge a would-be touchdown during Week 1. He may have cost his team possession of the ball -- Jags wide receiver Marqise Lee caught a pass while extending the ball for the end zone had it go flying out of his hand and potentially out of the end zone.
It was very close. But Pagano should have challenged. Maybe the NFL gets an angle that shows the ball crossing over the pylon.
This play happened on a second-and-7 and resulted in a first-and-goal. There was an opportunity to either have the refs rule the pass could be incomplete (it would be third-and-7) or that it would be a fumble out of the end zone (first-and-10, Colts' ball on their own 20-yard line). The upside of that ruling significantly outweighs any concern over losing a challenge. Predictably, the Jaguars would punch the ball in three plays later, giving them a 7-0 lead. They never looked back.
People were not impressed.
Colts aren't good enough to be this stupid.— Gregg Doyel (@GreggDoyelStar) October 22, 2017
Chuck Pagano with the worst, and most obvious, non-challenge I've ever seen. That should've been Colts ball at the 20. That's just terrible.— nick wright (@getnickwright) October 22, 2017
And they shouldn't be. Pagano shouldn't be canned because of one decision not to challenge. But it sure sounds and looks like his team has given up. If the Colts don't trade for Jacoby Brissett -- who has been very good this season, despite a bad offensive line and struggles from pass catchers -- then Indy might be winless. They are a legitimate contender for the No. 1 overall seed. The Browns and 49ers have to win some games to make that happen, so it might not really come to fruition. What might very well happen, however, is Pagano losing his job. If the Colts continue to look checked out and continue to fade during games, it could happen sooner than the end of the season.
Sound the hangover siren
The Atlanta Falcons went to New England on Sunday with vengeance on their mind. 28-3 lingered large for Atlanta, with the Falcons owing the Patriots a few points after their historical meeting in Super Bowl LI. The Patriots proceeded to put Dan Quinn and Matt Ryan
Atlanta clanked two field goals and couldn't produce a single point during the first three quarters. Their scoreless streak against the Patriots ran over 80 football minutes dating back to last year before the Falcons finally found the end zone late in the fourth quarter.
Between leaving the Super Bowl early and the fog, Mark Wahlberg has never seen the Patriots score on the Falcons.— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) October 23, 2017
The fog, by the way, was perfectly representative of the Falcons' state of being coming off that Super Bowl loss and trying to regroup.
The loss of Kyle Shanahan this offseason was a problem, but with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, Steve Sarkisian was supposed to be fine. He would figure it out. Keep the offense in place, let Ryan do what he does and pick up huge chunk yard plays. Those plays have evaporated, and Ryan has cratered back to being an average quarterback.
Even his touchdown required Julio Jones taking the ball away from a DB after Ryan underthrew him.
It might be time to look hard at Sarkisian as a playcaller. His redemption story is fantastic, but his playcalling hasn't been. Sarkisian ran a questionable offensive attack for Alabama against Clemson in the CFP championship game last year and it resulted in Clemson beating Alabama. (Sark took over for Lane Kiffin at the last minute, so it was easy to give him a pass.)
What we saw for Atlanta Sunday night should be a red flag. The Falcons felt like they were getting too cute near the Pats' goal line, with Atlanta running a jet sweep with Taylor Gabriel on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. It got stuffed by Pats linebackers. Not a great look for a team that has Freeman. Or heck, Julio. Throw it straight up in the end zone and dare someone to outjump No. 11.
The Falcons are just seven games into the Sark era, but they just produced 41 points over three games against AFC East teams, including the Patriots, who had previously given up 300-yard passing games to six straight NFL quarterbacks, an NFL record to open the season. This was a layup, and the Falcons were shut out at halftime.
A midseason reboot for the defending NFC champion doesn't fit the bill for what Quinn does (he has been largely methodical and smart about his approach), but there might need to be some kind of shakeup in Atlanta in order to get the fog out of their head.