PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers might not be the AFC's top-ranked team in everyone's power rankings. They might not capture the conference's No. 1 seed. They might not win the AFC North either.
But Pittsburgh's 35-7 dismantling of the Cincinnati Bengals delivered Sunday's boldest December declaration: The Steelers are the most complete team in the AFC. With all due respect to the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers played a more accomplished team Sunday and played a more thorough game.
The Steelers' offense finished off drives. They were 4-for-4 in the red zone.
Their defense finished off Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton with an increased pass rush. They stopped Cincinnati on nine of 11 third downs.
And Pittsburgh's special teams finished off a playoff contender in convincing fashion. A blocked field goal, a forced fumble on kickoff coverage and a 60-yard punt return for a touchdown by Antonio Brown made the new Bengals look like the old Bungles.
After Cincinnati's mistake-filled opening drive, Pittsburgh never gave the Bengals any hope of winning. The performance was equally methodical and menacing. The Steelers didn't just take away the Bengals' aspiration of winning the division. They took away Cincinnati's will. How bad was it? The Bengals pulled Dalton, a rookie of the year candidate, with 12:47 left in the game.
It's not a coincidence that the Steelers put together their best effort when the NFL calendar turned to December. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger talked to his teammates before the game and emphasized urgency in all three phases of the game.
"There’s no more times for letdowns and would’ves, could’ves and should’ves," Roethlisberger told reporters after the game. "It’s time to start playing our best football. I hope that’s this is a good start for it."
If there's any doubt of which AFC team is hitting its stride, take a look at how Baltimore, New England and Houston began December.
The Ravens can make a solid argument for being the AFC's best team after sweeping the Steelers and beating the San Francisco 49ers. But their effort Sunday was as sloppy at times as the rainy weather in an ugly 24-10 win at Cleveland.
The Patriots nearly had a monumental collapse and had to sweat out an onside kick in a 31-24 win over the winless Colts. And the Texans seem to get weaker even in victory, losing wide receiver Andre Johnson in a 17-10 win over Atlanta.
The one AFC team that has proven it can beat another with offense, defense or special teams is Pittsburgh. The Ravens and Texans can't match the depth of the Steelers' playmakers in Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders. The Patriots can't match the Steelers' talent on defense from James Harrison to Troy Polamalu to Ike Taylor to LaMarr Woodley (who could be available Thursday night after tweaking his hamstring). And few teams could match what the Steelers did on special teams Sunday.
"That’s what we’re going to have to do if we want to be a championship caliber team," Brown said. "We have to be able to work well in all three phases."
The Steelers' biggest hurdle to advancing to another Super Bowl is their playoff destination. Because Pittsburgh was swept by Baltimore, the Steelers are looking at being a wild-card team, which means playing on the road in the postseason.
The Ravens' final four games are: home against Indianapolis, at San Diego, home against Cleveland and at Cincinnati. If Baltimore doesn't lose -- which is a distinct possibility -- the Steelers could win out and have to play a first-round game at Denver or Houston or New England or even Baltimore.
No one wants to face the Ravens in Baltimore because they are the AFC's most dangerous team at home. But my guess is no one wants to see the Steelers coming to their stadium in January either.
"For us, it’s taking care of what we can control," Roethlisberger said of the playoff picture. "That means getting out there every week and giving our best. That’s kind of what we gave them today."
When Pittsburgh is playing at its best on offense, the Steelers are getting the ball to their speedy wide receivers who make cuts that are seen only on video games. Roethlisberger doesn't have to test that fractured right thumb with deep throws. His short one across the middle to Brown turned into a 45-yard gain and his quick one to Wallace turned into a 19-yard touchdown (after he made a handful of Bengals miss tackles).
When Pittsburgh is playing at its best on defense, the Steelers are pressuring the quarterback and creating turnovers. Pittsburgh went with a more aggressive game plan against Dalton. The result: five quarterback hits along with cornerback Ike Taylor picking off a fourth-quarter pass in front of receiver A.J. Green. After forcing an NFL-low four turnovers in its first nine games, the Steelers' defense has forced seven turnovers in three straight wins.
"We’re taking strides in the right direction," wide receiver Hines Ward said.
Does that mean this team is hitting its stride?
"I think so," Ward said. "We’re playing with a lot of confidence."
No AFC North team has had a more interesting journey than the Steelers. Pittsburgh looked like the NFL's worst team in the season-opening loss at Baltimore. Now, the Steelers have proven themselves to be one of the league's best.
"I feel like if we play well in all three phases, we’re going to be a tough team to beat coming down the stretch here," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. "That’s what it takes -- getting rolling at the right time."