Big Ben-led Steelers won't be stopped in weakened AFC

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers are rolling to a 5-1 start.

And the end game will be in Tampa.

The perennial best-kept secret in the AFC is once again stepping to the forefront as the most balanced and complete team in the conference, as once-favored clubs like the New England Patriots, San Diego Chargers and Indianapolis Colts continue to underachieve.

If the New York Giants (5-1) repeat as NFC champs, you're staring at a Super Bowl preview this weekend. The Steelers (5-1) will be waiting for the Giants in February, and here are five reasons why:

1. Depth separates the good teams from the great teams:
Through seven weeks, this has been the story of the Steelers' 2008 season. Much of the grind in the NFL is overcoming injuries, and Pittsburgh happens to be great at something that usually destroys teams.

The Steelers have lost starting tailback Willie Parker (knee), nose tackle Casey Hampton (knee), defensive end Brett Keisel (calf), guard Kendall Simmons (Achilles tendon), left tackle Marvel Smith (back) and rookie No. 1 draft pick Rashard Mendenhall (shoulder) for extended periods of time. Simmons and Mendenhall are both out for the year.

But lesser-known backups such as Mewelde Moore, Max Starks, Nick Eason and Chris Hoke are among the list of players who have stepped up and helped Pittsburgh win games. The experience will help in the long run when players such as Hampton, Parker and Smith return to full strength.

"We have to attribute that to upstairs with [GM] Kevin Colbert and the Rooneys,'' Hoke said of the team's depth. "It's also the coaches who are developing these guys. They're not only preparing just stars for the game; they're preparing everybody for Sunday."

2. The Steelers have the NFL's best defense:
Defense collects jewelry, and statistically the Steelers are the NFL's best at stopping opponents.

The Steelers allow the fewest yards per game (228.3) and the fewest yards allowed per play (3.7).

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau runs a masterful scheme that's built around pummeling and confusing the quarterback. The Giants get a lot of credit for sacking signal-callers, but the Steelers lead the NFL with 25 sacks. New York, which won the Super Bowl last season with the same philosophy, is second with 21 sacks.

Pittsburgh's blitz packages are relentless. The Steelers are extremely strong on the edges with outside linebackers James Harrison (8.5 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (7.5 sacks). In fact, eight different Steelers have contributed sacks this season.

"We believe we can get to anybody. … We bring a whole [different] attitude to the game,'' Woodley said.

3. Competition is waaaaaay down in the AFC:
Right now the Buffalo Bills (5-1) and Tennessee Titans (6-0) are Pittsburgh's main threats in a wide-open AFC.

But let's be honest, neither Buffalo nor Tennessee is close to the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts or even the San Diego Chargers of the past few seasons. Those were the type of high-powered teams the Steelers struggled with in recent years. Plodding, defense-oriented teams like the Bills and Titans are right down Pittsburgh's alley.

New England quarterback Tom Brady has always been a thorn in the side of Pittsburgh. He helped lead the Patriots to two road playoff wins in the conference title game over the Steelers during the Patriots' three championship runs. But Brady (knee) is sidelined for the year.

Indianapolis (3-3) and San Diego (3-4) are having down years and neither team owns a winning record. While the AFC got weaker overall this year, Pittsburgh got better. With its top-ranked defense, depth and consistent running game, this is the best Steelers team since 2005, which happened to be the last time they won a Super Bowl.

4. Roethlisberger is the great equalizer:
When you compare teams that can both run the football and play shut-down defense, you begin looking for X factors.

Ben Roethlisberger


Pittsburgh Steelers


With Brady hurt and Peyton Manning struggling, the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger is the biggest difference-maker at quarterback in the AFC.

In a one-game scenario between the elite teams in the conference, who would you rather have under center: Roethlisberger, Kerry Collins (Titans) or Trent Edwards (Bills)? Roethlisberger has a ring and is playoff tested. Edwards is not, and Collins is 36 years old and very limited.

Collins and Edwards have a much higher likelihood of being exposed and exploited in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger is 5-2 in seven career postseason games.

"He's definitely the main part of it all," Moore said. "When Ben is on point and doing everything, he gives us all the opportunity to step in[to] our roles and do what's asked of us. It's very possible for us to achieve all the things we're trying to achieve with him, and that most important thing is winning football games.''

5. Pittsburgh will be battle-tested:

The Steelers entered the year with the NFL's toughest strength of schedule -- with last year's opponent win percentage at .598 -- and still stand at 5-1. After persevering through injuries, a tough stretch awaits with the next four games against the Giants, Washington Redskins, Colts and Chargers.

Pittsburgh will be ready for the winter months at the end of this stretch. There is also a certain confidence, chemistry and attitude in the Steelers' locker room that cannot be quantified.

These are all the components of a championship team.

Therefore, expect a Black-and-Gold invasion in Tampa.

James Walker covers the NFL for ESPN.com