Who's No. 3 in AFC? Not the Steelers

At one time, the AFC provided a fairly clear picture of its elite teams.

You had New England, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh.

By virtue of their perfect record, the Patriots have occupied a spot well above the entire NFL all season. The Colts have been less consistent -- even causing a little panic during a two-game losing streak -- but strong enough to maintain the No. 2 position.

Then there are the Steelers, who have been the model of inconsistency.

They enter Thursday night's game against the St. Louis Rams on NFL Network with the league's No. 1 defense, which also ranks third against the run and the pass. They have the NFL's third-best rushing attack, with Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker piling up a league-leading 1,317 yards.

It would seem that there are enough reasons to feel comfortable with the Steelers as the AFC's No. 3 team, but that is hardly the case.

At 9-5, they are desperately trying to hang onto first place in their division, facing a serious challenge from the surprising Cleveland Browns. They have suffered two losses in a row, four of their defeats have come on the road, and three of their losses are against teams with losing records.

After Sunday's 29-22 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Steelers have slipped at least to the fourth spot in the conference. They looked sloppy in all facets against Jacksonville. Their performance was so poor that tight end Heath Miller went as far as to say, "It makes you sick to your stomach."

In handing Pittsburgh its first home loss of the season to improve to 10-4, the Jaguars made a strong case to be recognized as the AFC's new No. 3 club. Although they were shut out in Pro Bowl voting, the Jaguars have one of the league's top running backs, Fred Taylor, and the NFL's second-best rushing attack. They also have a highly efficient quarterback in David Garrard, and a stout run defense.

Two other 9-5 teams, the Browns and San Diego Chargers, also merit a long look for No. 3 consideration.

Although the Browns were swept in their season series against the Steelers, they have shown marked improvement since their season-opening loss to Pittsburgh and lost a shootout in the Nov. 11 rematch. The Browns have an explosive passing game. They have an extremely powerful runner in Jamal Lewis. And their last-ranked defense has shown improvement, particularly at the safety position.

The Chargers have won four games in a row on the way to capturing the AFC West. LaDainian Tomlinson, the NFL's second-ranked rusher, is back to his dominant form. San Diego's defense leads the league with 35 takeaways.

Of course, the Steelers could reclaim their previous status by closing out the year with victories over the Rams and Baltimore Ravens.

Despite the fact the Rams and Ravens have a combined record of 7-21 and Baltimore has lost eight games in a row, the Steelers can't count on any easy games. In losses to New England and Jacksonville the past two weeks, Pittsburgh's defense has not come close to performing as the top-ranked unit in the league. The Steelers' offensive line was no match for the Jaguars' pass rush, which was mostly generated by four men. Pro Bowler Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked five times and constantly hurried and knocked around, was inaccurate on many throws. He also wasn't helped by having one of his top receivers, Hines Ward, drop two passes.

Mike Tomlin, the Steelers' rookie coach, points to mental toughness as the most important quality his team must display. And a good time to show it would be Thursday.

"The reality is that we're a 9-5 football team searching for our 10th win," Tomlin said. "Do we feel good about where we are right now? Absolutely not. Would we feel better if we had started the season 1-4 instead of 4-1 and were sitting here at 9-5? We probably would.

"That is the mental toughness element of this game."

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