Seven-step drop

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

With the Pittsburgh Steelers representing the AFC and the division in Super Bowl XLIII, here are seven notes and observations:

  • There should be no question now of which team is better between the Steelers and Ravens. The first two games left plenty of room for debate, but Pittsburgh outplayed the Baltimore for four quarters Sunday during its 23-14 win in the AFC Championship Game. The Steelers never trailed and led in nearly every major statistical category, including total yards, forced turnovers, time of possession and third-down conversions. But this rivalry should be hotly contested again next year as both clubs should be very good.

  • We're not going to harp too much on the referees other than to say this was a another poorly officiated game. There were at least two egregiously blown calls involving a roughing the kicker penalty against Baltimore and Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes' touchdown/fumble/incomplete pass sequence that were mind boggling. There were a couple of other calls that were borderline. But officials did make errors on both sides which, I guess in some odd way, should be commended.

  • It's no surprise that the loss of cornerback Samari Rolle (groin, thigh) hurt the Ravens. The situation was very similar to most of the 2007 season when both Rolle and Chris McAlister also went down with injuries. Teams picked apart the ailing Ravens' secondary at every chance, because that was the only weakness on their defense. Pittsburgh did the same by throwing at replacements Frank Walker and Corey Ivy, who began the season as the No. 4 and No. 5 corners. Starter Fabian Washington also didn't have his best game and Pittsburgh threw for 255 yards, which was the highest passing total in the three meetings.

  • Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis finished the year on a high note. With everything on the line, Lewis had another terrific game with nine tackles and a forced fumble of Pittsburgh tailback Willie Parker. Lewis left his heart on the field and was visibly upset Sunday night while refusing to talk to reporters. It will be interesting to see how the Ravens handle the 33-year-old Lewis in free agency moving forward.

  • In trying to figure out why Scott Pioli took over as GM of the Kansas Chiefs and ditched the Cleveland Browns, an educated guess is Pioli felt more comfortable with Chiefs ownership. Money wasn't an issue, both teams were awful last year and there's no significant difference between the two rosters. In fact, the Browns probably have more game-breaking talent. But the Hunt family is viewed as one of the best ownership groups in the NFL. The Browns do not have that same league-wide reputation after hiring four regimes in 10 years, and that likely wore on the mind of Pioli when making a major (and risky) career decision to leave the safe nest of the New England Patriots.

  • Meanwhile, the Browns are getting no favors from the Ravens in regards to expected GM candidate George Kokinis. Baltimore likely will lose Kokinis to Cleveland very soon but has held up the transaction with its playoff run for as long as possible. This is an important time for non-playoff teams to evaluate their roster and plan ahead. New Browns coach Eric Mangini has been alone in that process so far. But with the combine and free agency fast approaching, the expected pair will have to hit the ground running to make up for the late start.

  • Reports out of Cincinnati state Bengals tackle Stacy Andrews had successful reconstructive knee surgery last week. That's the good news. The bad news is starting with the rehab date of mid-January, the earliest possible return for Andrews probably won't be until mid-September. This has to hurt Andrews' list of suitors, who probably will take a wait-and-see approach with his rehab. It will be surprising if Andrews is taken off the unrestricted free-agent market immediately considering his current status.