Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
PITTSBURGH -- Here are seven notes and observations from around the AFC North:
It was evident that the Pittsburgh Steelers spent a majority of their bye week tightening up their weaknesses. For most of this season, Pittsburgh struggled to run the ball and pass protect. Yet the team made all the right adjustments to get tailback Willie Parker (146 yards, two TDs) going and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's (one sack) jersey clean in a 35-24 win over the San Diego Chargers. This was the type of physical and efficient offense the Steelers thought they would have all season. But they are proving that it's never too late to find your identity in the NFL.
One of the most relieved Steelers had to be outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley. The second-year sack master has been in a slump. Woodley went four straight games without a sack, which was his longest stretch of the season. But he snapped out of it big time with two sacks against San Diego. This is his first year as a starter and the most common theory is that Woodley hit the wall after 12 games. Two weeks off gave him a second wind.
I've been getting a lot of e-mails saying Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco stepped out of bounds deep in his own end zone in the win against the Tennessee Titans. That is not accurate. The back replay shows that Flacco was aware of his surroundings and was able to keep both feet in bounds. But Baltimore was the beneficiary of a bad call later on when the refs failed to call a delay of game with the play clock at zero. That was a huge missed call. But after the first meeting with a questionable personal-foul penalty late, things evened out in the end.
It is shocking the amount of teams that refuse to double team Ravens receiver Derrick Mason more often. Mason is not a primary deep threat, which could be one reason. But for the past two months, Mason has been winning a majority of his one-on-one matchups despite his shoulder injury. He has become a reliable safety valve for Flacco, who usually throws to a spot and can expect Mason to be right there -- alone -- nearly every time due to craftiness and solid route running. It will be interesting to see if the Steelers decide to pay more attention to Mason than previous opponents.
With free agency less than two months away, the Derek Anderson sweepstakes could catch steam. I was told last week that at least two teams -- one from each conference -- began doing "homework" on the Cleveland Browns' backup quarterback. I'm not ready to divulge the teams just yet because it's still preliminary and I'm waiting for more details. But with a new head coach on board in Eric Mangini, it's difficult to tell whether Anderson will still be available via trade.
The Cincinnati Bengals coaching at the Senior Bowl this year will be a good opportunity to get a deeper look at players. As I've pointed out numerous times in this blog, one of Cincinnati's biggest issues as a franchise is its scouting department is not up to par with most NFL teams. So the Bengals can use any advantage that they can get. By coaching these college players and running them through NFL-style practices, the Bengals will get an early feel not only for talent, but which players have good work habits.
I'm starting to wonder if the Browns and Bengals really have a fair shot to compete in the AFC North in the near future. They share a division with the two teams competing for a conference title, which is a rarity but illustrates how top heavy the AFC North is. I know anything can happen year to year in the NFL. However, if the Steelers and Ravens retain key free agents and stay healthy, both will be division bullies and Super Bowl contenders once again next season.