AFC North: Superdome

Here are some notes and observations from Week 8 in the AFC North:
[+] EnlargeTroy Polamalu
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyWhile they had bright moments, Troy Polamalu and the Pittsburgh defense struggled against Drew Brees and the Saints on Sunday.

  • Even Troy Polamalu occasionally has bad games. The Pittsburgh Steelers' do-it-all safety had his worst game in years during Sunday's 20-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Polamalu and Saints Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees were involved in a chess match, and Brees won most of those matchups by catching Polamalu out of position several times for big gains. Polamalu struggled to get a read on Brees and was a step or two late on big plays. Polamalu also missed tackles he usually makes in what was a rare, subpar performance by his standards.
  • The Superdome was the loudest stadium I've heard all season. The raucous atmosphere definitely bothered Pittsburgh (5-2), which had won its first three road games this season. The communication on offense was shaky because of the crowd noise, and the defense eventually succumbed to the pressure of trying to carry the team for four quarters.
"We better get used to these kind of environments; it comes with the territory when you're trying to be world champs," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We've got to play good people in their place and play better than that moving forward."

  • I'm baffled as to why the Steelers failed to successfully attack New Orleans' blitzes. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger is one of the NFL's best quarterbacks at beating pressure packages. The play calling was one step behind. The Steelers didn't run many screens, couldn't execute hot routes and didn't take many shots deep against single coverage. That would have made New Orleans think twice about bringing extra defenders. But Pittsburgh's offense never figured it out. So credit the Saints for continuing to bring the heat.
  • Expect the spotlight to be on the future of coach Marvin Lewis with the Cincinnati Bengals playing their first national game on "Monday Night Football." This topic has been somewhat quiet in Cincinnati since the start of the regular season. But with the Bengals' postseason hopes in dire straits, the chatter will certainly pick up. How will this impact the locker room? Will the Bengals play hard, knowing Lewis could be coaching out his final nine games under contract? Or will they pack it in? We will find out how Cincinnati responds, starting on Monday against Pittsburgh.
  • That brings us to our next point: what team is more capable of playing spoiler, Cincinnati (2-5) or the Cleveland Browns (2-5)? Both teams are heading in opposite directions. The Bengals have the talent to be dangerous, but their execution has been awful during their four-game losing streak. Cleveland plays more efficiently with less talent and also could be a tough out. Keep an eye on both division teams.
  • Here is an odd stat: Punter Reggie Hodges (one carry, 68 yards) is Cleveland's second-leading rusher behind tailback Peyton Hillis. Hodges' fake punt last week against the Saints was Cleveland's longest running play this season. But it's also another indicator of the Browns' lack of depth at running back. Last month, Cleveland traded Jerome Harrison and released James Davis. Cleveland hopes it gets help from new acquisition Mike Bell, who didn't show much in his Browns debut but hopes to improve after the bye.
  • Receiver Donte' Stallworth (foot) is expected to return this week. He should add needed speed to the Baltimore Ravens' offense. When healthy, Stallworth is one of the fastest players in the division. Outside of receiver Anquan Boldin, Baltimore hasn't had enough long passing plays this season. Boldin has seven receptions of 20 yards or more, which is solid. But receivers Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh have combined for just six 20-plus-yard receptions in seven games.
This week's "Take your pick" involved a primetime matchup in Week 8. We want to know who will win Sunday night's game between the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-1) and New Orleans Saints (4-3). They've combined to win the past two Super Bowls.

Here are some responses from our division inbox and AFC North Twitter:

Steelers all day!

Boris Hertslet from Yigo, Guam, writes: This should be a great game. We Steelers fans know how hard it is to defend a championship. Everybody plays their best against the reigning Super Bowl champ. Brees is one interception away from matching his total for last year. Saints can't run (26th in NFL). So, Brees will pass all day and Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, and Ike Taylor will pad their interception stats. Steelers 24, Saints 17.

Erik from MacArthur, W.Va., writes: Steelers are the class of the AFC and they have shown even without Ben Roethlisberger they can beat the best the NFC has to offer (Atlanta). With Roethlisberger back and now even more in rhythm with the offense, the Steelers go into New Orleans and show the Saints that last year was a fluke and they are hungrier than ever for the Lombardi trophy. This is Ben's first primetime game since suspension. I expect him to have a big game as he usually does in primetime. Steelers win a statement game, 31-13.

Tim C. from Newtown, Conn., writes: The Saints' four wins have been against opponents with a combined (8-18) record, and three of them have been by less than a touchdown. Throw in double-digit losses to the Cardinals and Browns, it’s clear they're not at the same level as Pittsburgh. Aaron Smith's injury will hurt, but the defense will remain among the best as long as they have Troy Polamalu. This one will be over at halftime. Steelers by 14.

ShmullyLitvin via Twitter writes: Browns used tricks and one dominating defensive player. Steelers actually have an offense, win 34-17.

Ryan from Indianapolis writes: The Steelers will win this game. Even without Aaron Smith, the current version of the Steel Curtain is good enough to stop the non-existent Saints running game. With the Browns creating pressure on Drew Brees, they laid the framework for the Steelers to blitz and create turnovers. If Rashard Mendenhall can get on track and have a solid outing, Ben will have no problem leading the Steelers to victory with the Saints worried about stopping the run.

Saints get on track!

Brandon Crawford from Sykesville, Md., writes: I would have to go with the Saints. It's at the Superdome which is a very tough place to play, just ask Brett Favre. The Saints are getting Reggie Bush back, which will help the return game and the rushing attack. I don't see Drew Brees throwing four interceptions again. Finally I don't see the champs losing three of four games. Go with the Saints in this one, 24-17.

BWhatlen22 via Twitter writes: Saints will bounce back as Brees has a big day and the secondary finds ways to slow down Big Ben. Saints, 31-20.

Matthew Arnold from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I'm a huge Steelers fan. But as much as it pains me to admit, I see this as being a huge Saints blowout. I think last Sunday's game was a wakeup call for them, and especially if Reggie Bush comes back, it could get ugly. The Steelers rarely lose big, but this could be one of those losses.

Steve L from Leesburg, Va., writes: As a Browns fan, if Colt McCoy can pass for 280-plus yards against the Steelers, Drew Brees should throw for 500! Saints win, 38-20.

The_blueprint via Twitter writes: Saints. They're too talented to drop two in a row, and they've already been caught sleeping a little.

AFC North final say

James Walker: Coming off a stellar 3-1 record in Week 7, we will pick this game and Miami Dolphins versus the Cincinnati Bengals on Friday. Both are tough calls. So stay tuned.