The Debrief, Week 7: Steelers' swoon arrives, Cowboys surge

Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 6 to Week 7.

Playing without big offensive stars is a Steelers season tradition, like losing on the road to also-rans and yelling "Heeeath" after Jesse James catches.

There is a dramatic difference, however, between trying to win without Le'Veon Bell and trying to win without Ben Roethlisberger. The news could be worse following Big Ben's surgery for a torn meniscus Monday. He will miss Sunday's game against the Patriots, recover during the team's Week 8 bye and has a shot to play the following week against the Ravens.

The injury provides the Patriots a big leg up for playoff seeding in the AFC and renews hope in the rest of the AFC North during a season in which Pittsburgh should be lapping the field. The Ravens have lost three straight, while the Bengals have lost four of five. Yet, both teams could realistically be in first place by midseason.

Pittsburgh's no-show in Miami and upcoming date with Belichick could leave the Steelers 4-3 heading to Baltimore with an iffy Roethlisberger. The Bengals, meanwhile, had the most front-loaded schedule in football, one that gets far easier starting with this week's game against Cleveland.

The Steelers remain the divisional favorites, the perennial "team you don't want to face" in the playoffs. Except that postseason game almost always has the Steelers as a road team because of midseason lulls like this one.

This week's biggest winners

1) The Cowboys' title hopes: There are always a few mid-October games that shake loose those final, nasty preconceptions that have hung around since August. Dallas' thorough victory in Green Bay was one of those games, a signal to the rest of the NFC that the Cowboys are a legitimate title contender, no matter who is playing quarterback.

The Cowboys' defense isn't just putting together a nice story about overachieving; this is a frenetic-tackling crew with excellent talent in the secondary, a group that complements the Dallas offense. The rushing game is dominant enough to roll up 191 yards on a Packers' rush defense that had been playing on a historic pace entering Week 6. The passing attack, led by a fourth-round rookie playing like a top-10 veteran, was far more effective than the unit led by the two-time MVP across the field. Dak Prescott helps the Cowboys dictate each week with long early drives, and he is incredible in the two-minute drill. It's getting far easier to imagine the Cowboys using Tony Romo's injury history as a reason to keep Romo on the shelf -- and Prescott under center -- longer than expected.

2) The NFC East revival: Another Sunday, another twonon-division wins for teams from the NFC East. Each team in the division is .500 or better, and the division as a whole is 11-4 when playing outside of the division, easily the best mark in the NFL. This all smells like an opportunity for broadcasters to flex into NFC East division games down the stretch. This year, we welcome it!

3) The Bills' running game: Even in Rex Ryan's wildest dreams, he couldn't have imagined averaging 212 rushing yards in new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn's first four games. (And Rex would rank high in the Power Rankings of NFL Coaches with the Wildest, Wildest Dreams.)

The Bills are now converting third-and-22 runs by LeSean McCoy, who has been the best player on the field for four weeks running. Free rushers can't take down quarterback Tyrod Taylor on third-and-long. It's a wonderful combination of diverse power scheming and two players who can make any defender miss.

This week's biggest losers

1) The Rams' formula: After six weeks, there isn't a clear formula for how the Los Angeles Rams want to win games. They wasted a career game from quarterback Case Keenumin Detroit on Sunday in large part because the team's homegrown offensive line can't open holes on the ground. The dispiriting box score line of the week: Reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Todd Gurley and Lions fourth-string runner Zach Zenner produced matching 14-carry, 58-yard efforts.

Injuries have sapped the Rams' vaunted defensive line, and there is a steep drop-off in the secondary after cornerback Trumaine Johnson, who missed Sunday's game with an ankle injury. This team is a lot like Keenum. The Rams do their best work scrambling, but that's hard to sustain over 16 weeks.

2) Aaron Rodgers truthers: Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote the definitive "Something is wrong with Rodgers" piece over the weekend. In the past, we'd expect Rodgers to light up an uneven Cowboys defense and then respond with salt dripping off his words in the postgame press conference.

Instead, the Green Bay offense failed to score a touchdown until the Packers were down three scores midway through the fourth quarter. It's almost as if the offensive line is too good for Rodgers; he looks less comfortable with no pressure, a trend that has played out for more than a year. Green Bay is tied at No. 27 in yards per pass attempt, and the stale offensive approach makes us wonder if Mike McCarthy will need improvement this season if he wants to keep coaching Rodgers.

3) The Colts' morale: There are losses, and there are Losses. It gets no worse than blowing a 14-point lead with less than three minutes remaining against your biggest division rival. (That was the first 14-point loss in the final three minutes suffered by a team since the beginning of Tebowmania in Miami in 2011.)

"Dejected Andrew Luck at the Podium" has become my least-favorite weekly program of the fall television season. Luck was lower than ever Sunday night, perhaps because he played a big role in failing to close out a struggling Texans team.

Some deeply flawed squad will capture the AFC South. But Luck, who has played well overall this season, seems to be feeling the weight that comes with carrying an organization adrift. This week will provide an early test of his team's backbone: The Colts need to win in Tennessee on Sunday to avoid starting 2-5, including an 0-3 mark in the division. This is a division where every loss feels like a missed opportunity.

Storylines that deserve more attention

1) The Redskins have won four straight close games, mostly in spite of their quarterback. And they've found an identity along the way.

The team has been building toward its 230-yard rushing performance against the Eagles on Sunday. In three of Washington's four wins, Matt Jones has buried opponents late in games with his tackle-breaking style. His backup, Rob Kelley, has popped off a few long runs, too, and is averaging 6.8 yards per carry. The two men combine to weigh 460 pounds, including their impressive flowing hair. As Chris Wesseling noted on our podcast Sunday night, this is the type of offense Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan envisioned when he drafted road-grading guard Brandon Scherff fifth overall ahead of Leonard Williams in 2015.

Combine this rushing attack with a pass rushing duo in Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Murphy that has amassed 9.5 sacks and 41 total pressures according to Pro Football Focus, and this is a team that knows how to finish.

2) The NFC South is officially a defense-free zone. The three highest scoring games of the season all come from the early round-robin matchups between the Saints, Falcons and Panthers. Atlanta has the highest-ranked scoring defense in the division -- at 26th overall.

3) It took a few injuries for sixth-round pick Elandon Roberts to enter the team's starting lineup. But now it could be tough to take the rookie linebacker off the field. Roberts has played with an almost uncomfortable ferocity, tracking running backs and receivers alike like a heat-seeking missile. Two plays stand out: a goal-line stuff of Bengals back Gio Bernard this week and a snap in Week 5 where he racked Browns tackle Joe Thomas and Isaiah Crowell.

Newly minted Patriots defensive captain Dont'a Hightower has also made an enormous difference in this defense the last two weeks with his return to health. When Jamie Collins returns, Bill Belichick will have incredibly versatile options at linebacker for the league's No. 2 scoring defense.

4) The AFC West is my choice as the league's most compelling division, now that the NFC South mocks me on a weekly basis with its commitment to dreadfulness. Week 6 was critical in condensing the AFC West standings, with the two lagging teams (San Diego and Kansas City) taking outthe co-leaders, Denver and Oakland. Don't be surprised if this is a four-way race deep into December.

While the Chargers' inability to close out games combines tragedy and comedy like some Vonnegut novel, I am not giving up on this team. They have oceans of talent on both sides of the ball despite all their injuries. They have been leading by an average of 6.3 points in their games, good for second in the league entering Sunday.

5) Bruce Arians is starting to recognize that his bombs-away approach isn't working this season, so it's time for the Cardinals to go Full NFC West. That must pain Arians at some level, but he knows he can win games with David Johnson, short passes to Larry Fitzgerald and more David Johnson. Arians' game plan for Monday night's 28-3 victory over the Jets was his way of admitting that Carson Palmer's deep passes, not to mention the team's protection, is no longer the strength of his team.

This offense looked more like the 2015 Chiefs than the '15 Cardinals, but it was effective: three drives of 11 plays or more that chewed up 20 combined minutes of clock. The Cardinals can win the time-of-possession battle (36:02 on Monday) and have the pass-rushing talent to win different types of games, even if Arians misses those style points.

Narratives that were busted

1) Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman wasn't the only problem for Baltimore's offense. While the team hit on two longer pass plays in the first game since Trestman was fired as offensive coordinator, quarterback Joe Flacco still threw the ball 48 times in a tight game with little efficiency. The Ravens averaged 5.1 yards per offensive play in Sunday's loss to the Giants, barely an uptick on its 29th-ranked season-long average.

Injuries are as big a problem for the Ravens as Trestman's play-calling ever was. Steve Smith, Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley, Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, C.J. Mosley and Jimmy Smith -- the list of injured players reads like a "who's who" of the Ravens' roster.

2) The Dolphins can no longer be mentioned as a candidate for the worst team in the NFL. Coach Adam Gase finally found the magic number of firings and benchings (74) to wake up his squad. Don't blame Pittsburgh's 30-15 loss to Miami on Ben Roethlisberger's knee injury. The Dolphins were controlling the game from the jump because Miami's offensive line, finally healthy, pushed Pittsburgh's defense around. The Dolphins could have easily won by 30 points if not for some missed opportunities.

In a strange way, this result puts more pressure on Gase and quarterback Ryan Tannehill. We've seen what this team is capable of, even when Mario Williams only gets off the bench for 13 defensive snaps. Now the Dolphins need to back it up.

3)Cam Newton's return couldn't solve everything wrong with the Panthers. Newton was fantastic overall, but he can't play right tackle. It was another week of breakdowns in the secondary from a rookie cornerback (Zack Sanchez) and safety Tre Boston. It was another week of an absent pass rush, with Charles Johnson, Kawann Short and Kony Ealy all struggling to make an impact. It was another week where they loston a late field goal, all the good fortune they had in close games in 2015 now going the other way.

Games in the Superdome now resemble Arena League contests. It feels crazy to fault the Panthers' offense at all, but five punts and two turnovers in 14 drives against the Saints won't cut it. Newton needed to score even more than he did in the 38-point effort.

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