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Midseason report: Pittsburgh Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- Frustrated Pittsburgh Steelers fans were fitting offensive coordinator Todd Haley for a dunce cap and planning for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s imminent retirement after an embarrassing 31-10 loss at Cleveland on Oct. 12 dropped them to 3-3 and into last place in the AFC North. Boos rained down on the Steelers the following week at Heinz Field after they fell behind the Houston Texans 13-0.

A flurry of touchdowns at the end of the first half vaulted the Steelers into the lead against the mistake-prone Texans, and they haven't looked back since. The Steelers have won their past three games by an average of 14.7 points and they are only .021 behind the first-place Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North.

MVP: Wide receiver Antonio Brown. For those wondering what the two-time Pro Bowler could do for an encore after setting a Steelers record with 1,499 yards in 2013, Brown has been even better this season. The fifth-year veteran is on pace to catch 126 passes for 1,771 yards and 14 touchdowns. Coach Mike Tomlin compared Brown’s impact on games to that of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, and consistent double-teams have done anything but slow down Brown. He gets the nod over quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has thrown an NFL-record 12 touchdown passes in his past two games.

Biggest disappointment: Cornerback Cortez Allen. The player whom the Steelers signed to a five-year, $25 million contract in early September has been demoted twice this season. Allen leads the Steelers with two interceptions, but he played only one snap in a 43-23 win over Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night after losing his job at nickel back to Antwon Blake. It is way too early for the Steelers to give up on Allen, who turned 27 last week. But they have to hope he weathers this tough stretch because the Steelers are lacking in developmental cornerbacks right now.

Best moment: Trailing the Texans 13-3 in a Monday Night Football game, the Steelers exploded for 21 points late in the second quarter. The defense, offense and special teams all fed off another as a Steelers team that had managed three touchdowns in the previous two games scored three in a span of 1 minute, 36 seconds. A season obituary was ready to be written after the Texans controlled most of the first half at Heinz Field. But the Steelers scored 24 unanswered points, propelling them to a 30-23 win that saved their season.

Worst moment: The Cleveland Browns, already missing several key players on defense, lost Pro Bowl center Alex Mack to a season-ending knee injury during their Oct. 12 game against the Steelers. That still didn’t stop them from drilling their archrivals at the Dawg Pound. It got worse for the Steelers after their 31-10 loss when Browns left tackle Joe Thomas said, “We had so many injuries across the board it’s hard to believe we could have beaten a college team.” Ouch. The loss was only the Steelers' third to the Browns in their past 23 meetings and marked the low point of the season.

Key to the second half: The Steelers will go as far as their offense takes them. It has finally played up to its potential during a three-game winning streak in which the Steelers have averaged 41.3 points. The defense has shown marked improvement while the Steelers have gone from 3-3 to 6-3, and Pittsburgh is starting to get after opposing quarterbacks. The Steelers can score with any team if the offense continues to play at a high level. The emergence of rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant only adds to the riches that the Steelers have at the skill positions.