Power Rankings: Preseason: No. 18. This week: No. 2.
Where they stand: The Steelers made it look easy by exceeding preseason expectations and now are a strong Super Bowl contender. The four-game suspension of franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn't hurt Pittsburgh, as the team went 3-1 without him. The Steelers are also 3-1 with Roethlisberger and tied for the NFL's best record at 6-2. Pittsburgh will be in a tight, two-team race with the Baltimore Ravens (6-2) to determine the AFC North champion. Both teams also have a shot at home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Falling: Pittsburgh's pass defense hasn't played up to expectations despite the healthy return of safety Troy Polamalu. The Steelers are No. 4 in total defense but have allowed big days to opposing receivers and, therefore, rank No. 24 against the pass. Pittsburgh's run defense is so stout that opponents are opting for short and intermediate passes on first and second down to gain yards. The Steelers' defense will have to make that adjustment in the second half of the season. Pittsburgh's offensive line also is banged up, particularly at left tackle where longtime starter Max Starks (neck) was put on injured reserve Wednesday.
Rising: Tailback Rashard Mendenhall is seventh in the NFL in rushing with 702 yards and on pace for his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. He carried the offense during Roethlisberger's suspension and also has a nose for the end zone with seven touchdowns. Pittsburgh's rookie class also has been productive. First-round pick Maurkice Pouncey has been a starter from Day 1 and third-round pick Emmanuel Sanders provided a boost on special teams.
Midseason MVP: The offense would not have gone anywhere this season without Mendenhall. Despite opponents knowing Pittsburgh would run the football without Roethlisberger, Mendenhall kept the offense afloat by grinding out tough games and making big runs.
Outlook: The Steelers aren't perfect, but they have as good a chance as anyone to win their second Super Bowl in three seasons. This team still hasn't played its best football. If the defense can tighten up against the pass and Roethlisberger rounds into Pro Bowl form, the Steelers are going to be tough to beat. This team is built to win late in the season and in the playoffs. Look for Pittsburgh to be a threat to make a deep postseason run.