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The bombs-away Steelers should terrify the rest of the AFC

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The AFC wildcard race is really getting interesting thanks to the Steelers.

Sure, they've struggled at points this season -- that ugly 16-10 home loss to the division rival Bengals is the one that jumps off the page -- and as of now stand at just 7-5. If the playoffs started today, the Steelers, thanks to a 4-4 conference record, would be the last team out -- which is an outcome the rest of the AFC should be praying for.

One of the lessons we've learned over the past decade or so is that it's no longer inconceivable for Wild Card teams to blow through the playoffs and make it to the Super Bowl. We saw Green Bay do it in 2010. The Giants in 2007.

And in 2005 Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to four straight postseason wins, including a 21-10 victory in Super Bowl XL. Three years later Big Ben was once again hoisting the Lombardy Trophy and now, thanks to an explosive aerial attack, looks as if he could be poised to make a run at championship No. 3.

Bombs away

It starts with the deep ball -- which is at the heart of what the Steelers do and why they're so dangerous -- and specifically Antonio Brown. Brown, now 27 and in his sixth year in the NFL, has emerged as the league's best receiver. Fast with strong hands, Brown can reel in deep balls downfield or run around and through secondaries off quick screens. The Steelers use him in myriad ways and opponents have yet to figure out how to slow him down -- aside from knocking Roethlisberger out.

Brown is second in the NFL in receptions (93), fourth in targets (129) and second in yards (1,410). He's also tied for second with 18 plays of 20 or more yards, and it's here where he, and the Steelers offense separates itself from the rest of the league. Some teams (helloooo, Kansas City) need to put together a perfectly executed, mistake-free drive full of pinpoint passes and precise play-calling in order to reach the end zone.

The Steelers, on other hand, have room for error. Perfection isn't the goal. All Roethlisberger needs is one play with a little bit of protection. Because it's not just Brown who can go get balls downfield. Martavis Bryant (31 catches, 623 yards, 10 plays of 20 or more yards) and Markus Wheaton (28 catches, 524 yards, 7 plays of 20 or more yards) have both emerged as explosive threats as well.

Even Darius Heyward-Bey needs to be respected. Sliding a safety over to Brown's side is no longer an obvious call.

The Steelers this season have registered a league-high 36 plays of at least 25 yard and 19 plays of at least 40 yards. No other team is the league has amassed more than 11. Their offense is ranked No. 3 in by Football Outsiders and that's a number that recently has been climbing.

Of course none of that would matter if the man under center wasn't healthy and playing the best football of his career.

The return of Big Ben

Physically it's been a rough season for the Steelers' signal-caller. He sprained his MCL Week 3 against the Rams and was forced to sit out Pittsburgh's next four games. He returned to the field -- only to suffer a left foot sprain two weeks later.

All told, Roethlisberger has started seven games this season and played in eight. He's completing 66 percent of his passes, thrown 15 touchdowns compared to just nine interceptions and is averaging a league-leading 8.9 yards per attempt.

But like his health Roethlisberger's numbers are trending north, which is why his 4-3 record as a starter shouldn't be harped on. He's averaging 383 yards over his last four games. The Steelers are averaging 36 points per game over that stretch and are 3-1. The lone loss came in a shootout in Seattle.

"We're all getting better together,"  Roethlisberger said earlier in the week, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Whether it's at practice when we are on the field, whether it's at practice when the defense is on the field and we are on the sideline talking, communicating in meetings, communicating between meetings. [I] just feel a chemistry growing between all of us on offense. Things just seem to be working."

This week will be the true test. The Steelers travel to Cincinnati to take on the division-leading 10-2 Bengals, who also happen to be the last team to slow Pittsburgh's explosive attack down. In that game Roethlisberger was held to 262 passing yards and picked off three times. The Steelers' longest play of the day went for 25 yards and both Brown and Wheaton were held in check.

It wasn't a fluke either. No team is allowing fewer points per game than the 16 the Bengals are surrendering. Geno Atkins (8 sacks) and Carlos Dunlap (9.5 sacks) have terrorized opposing quarterbacks and offensive lines all season, while safety Reggie Nelson (league-high seven interceptions) has seemingly snagged every weak throw that's traversed through the secondary. Against the Steelers in Week 8 the Bengals dropped Nelson and the rest of the safeties back and dared Pittsburgh to do the very thing it doesn't want to: check down.

Roethlisberger instead elected to challenge Cincinnati's stout defense, only to get burned. Look for him and the Steelers to continue to do so this Sunday, but also to ride the suddenly resurgent DeAngello Williams and his 4.9 yards per carry. That said, don't expect head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley to revamp the philosophy that has gotten them this far.

Be aggressive

That philosophy is to let it fly. No matter the down, no matter the distance, no matter the score, no matter where they are on the field.

"When it's third-and-5, most teams in the NFL go for a 5-, 6-, 7-yard route," Roethlisberger said Tuesday. "We're not afraid to take shots. It's good for us. Sometimes, obviously, we don't connect and we have to come off the field. But we're not going to be afraid to take the shots on third-and-short or third-and-medium, we're not just trying to get first downs, we're trying to make plays."

Pittsburgh has also attempted 10 two-point conversions this season and converted seven. No other team has gone for two more than five times and no one has converted ones more than three.

What the Steelers are doing is simple math. They're betting on the long game, on the idea that no team is going to be perfect and so you're better of making sure you're chances count. As we saw in Week 8, sometimes that strategy can backfire. But if you stick to it, more often that not it's going to pay off.

* * *

This is not to say that the Steelers are a flawless team. The defense, especially, leaves a lot to be desired for. But if they can sneak into the playoffs they're going to be facing teams that sometimes have trouble getting into the upper 20s. Take the Broncos, for example, Or Alex Smith's Chiefs. Both those squads have elite defenses that can slow down even the most explosive offenses. But with the style of football the Steelers are playing all they need is to hit on their gambles something like 20 percent of the time.

That's a recipe that bodes well for the playoffs. The question, though, is can the Steelers win enough games down the stretch to get there.

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