Last year, the Steelers were led into the playoffs by a stout defense and the dynamic play of QB Ben Roethlisberger.
This year's team features an even better defense, but the offense has fallen apart. Sunday, Roethlisberger threw two crucial interceptions and Indianapolis made just enough plays on offense to escape with a 24-20 win.
The Steelers' passing offense has lost its stride, as Roethlisberger and big-play receiver Santonio Holmes are no longer connecting. Roethlisberger has taken a pounding all year, and now he is nursing a shoulder injury that has caused his performance to crater to Joey Harrington-esque levels the past three weeks.
Holmes has mimicked that decline. He was the NFL's sixth most valuable receiver on a per play basis last season. So far this year, he is 60th.
The reason for Holmes' decline in production is not entirely clear. He has remained healthy and is in his prime. One possibility is that teams are now treating him, instead of Hines Ward, as the Steelers' top receiver. Ward's per play production has spiked, moving from 43rd to 20th, a surprising development in an offense that has otherwise declined.
The Steelers' passing offense was already having problems early in the season, but over the past three weeks, Roethlisberger's production has completely tanked. His shoulder injury is clearly a major problem. In those three games, Roethlisberger has only one touchdown and a whopping eight interceptions. He only threw 11 interceptions in 15 games last season.
Sunday, Roethlisberger faced a Colts team intent on stopping the Steelers' running attack. That's a situation in which he has dominated in recent seasons, but not in Week 10. Roethlisberger completed a high percentage of his passes, but he struggled to find big plays. Only two of Roethlisberger's 42 passes gained 20 or more yards. Meanwhile, he threw two awful interceptions that set the Colts up with a short field for two touchdowns.
Both of those passes were intended for Holmes. The first appeared to be a minor miscommunication (or a really bad throw). On the second, Holmes was outfought for the ball by Tim Jennings. For the game, Roethlisberger completed only three of seven attempts to Holmes, and the last two completions netted a combined 1 yard.
For the Colts, this win marked the second consecutive hard-fought win over a quality opponent, after a three-point win over New England in Week 9. After a slow start offensively, the Colts are rounding into form and appear poised for a serious second-half run. The offensive line is healthy and has found a consistent starting five.
Peyton Manning's offseason knee surgery did affect his performance. According to Football Outsiders' advanced DVOA stats, Manning was roughly a league-average quarterback through three games. Since then, he has basically matched his performance level from last season. Manning still has no rhythm with the slowing Marvin Harrison, and the two failed to connect on what should have been two touchdowns Sunday. This obvious hole is what separates the Colts' offense from years past.
Defensively, the Colts are beginning to mask their injuries in the secondary. Keiwan Ratliff was sitting at home a couple of weeks ago but now is starting for a playoff contender and came up with a key interception. The Colts' cornerback shortage means when they add defensive backs in pass situations, they have to add safeties instead of cornerbacks. The group is not dominant, but it held its own.
Meanwhile, the Colts' young defensive tackles, Eric Foster and Keyunta Dawson, are playing better and starting to slow opposing running backs. The combined efforts lead to an average defense, which is all the Colts expect of their young, undersized unit.
Pittsburgh's defense is anything but average, but this best-in-the-league unit will have to stay dominant if the Steelers are going to threaten in the AFC. Sunday's performance was good but not great.
The Steelers have now sunk into a tie with Baltimore for first place in the AFC North, and DVOA ranks them as two roughly equal teams -- with very similar strengths and weaknesses. It should be the most competitive two-team division race through the end of the season. In order to stay with Baltimore, Roethlisberger may need to take some time off to fully heal his shoulder. Over the past three weeks, Big Ben has not been good enough for a playoff contender.
Indianapolis would not make the playoffs if they started today, but the Colts are poised for a big second-half playoff push thanks to their improved play and a soft schedule. Based on average opponent DVOA, the Colts have played the league's second-hardest schedule so far. Their remaining schedule ranks 30th, and their only remaining opponent with a winning record is Tennessee in Week 17.
The Titans' 9-0 start makes a sixth straight AFC South crown almost impossible, but thanks to Roethlisberger's interceptions Sunday, the Colts are 5-4. They now have to be considered a favorite to win an AFC wild card.
Ned Macey is an analyst for Football Outsiders.