- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The Ravens' defense forced seven turnovers. A Steelers defense that featured eight defenders in their 30s looked a step slow. An offensive line that has struggled off-and-on for years lost perhaps its second-best blocker, right tackle Willie Colon, who blew out a triceps and is done for the season.
But fear not, Steelers fans. AFC teams with elite quarterbacks shouldn't panic. With Peyton Manning out at least half the season, the AFC currently has only five elite quarterbacks. When the number of elite quarterbacks slips below the number of playoff spots allotted, the playoff hopes of elite-quarterback-blessed teams can withstand a lot.
To refresh your memory, an elite quarterback under my standards is one who is capable of passing for 4,000 yards, completes 60 percent of his passes and has fourth-quarter comeback ability. Until Manning returns, the five AFC elite quarterbacks are Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Joe Flacco and Matt Schaub.
With one road game out of the way against Flacco, Roethlisberger faces only three elite quarterbacks the rest of the season -- Flacco, Brady and Schaub. Chances of an 11- or 12-win season are very good.
One of the reasons I extend the elite designation to a dozen or more is because of their predictable success against teams with non-elite quarterbacks. Over the past three years, for example, Roethlisberger is 23-7 against non-elite quarterbacks, a .760 winning percentage. Flacco is 26-3, Brady is 19-5 and Rivers is 19-10 after a strange 2010 season in which special teams breakdowns cost the Chargers games; Rivers went 7-6 against teams with non-elite quarterbacks in 2010. Schaub has been elite for only two years and is 12-8 against non-elite QBs.
What this tells me is Roethlisberger should go around 9-3 this season against non-elite quarterbacks. As long as he splits his four games against elite quarterbacks, the Steelers should go around 11-5. After all, the Steelers are playing the NFC West and an AFC South that has Manning on the sideline.
So relax, Pittsburgh fans. One loss on the road to Baltimore doesn't derail the path for Roethlisberger and the Steelers.
From the inbox
Q: With the new kickoff rule in the NFL leading to more 80-yard drives, I'll be interested to see if this leads to more punting (due to fewer successful conversions of the 80-yard drives). Do NFL execs really believe punting is more safe than kicking off? I'm sure punt returners wouldn't agree.
Christian in Camp Hill, Pa.
A: One of the reasons the league chose kickoffs is because there have been very serious injuries caused on kickoffs. Part of the problem was the wedge. The competition committee noticed too many career-ending neck and head injuries from coverage players crashing into a wall of three or four blockers wedged together in the middle of the field. The committee moved to eliminate the wedge, but it saw plenty of other injuries, so it decided to move kickoffs to the 35-yard line. As we are seeing, it's eliminating 50 percent of the returns because of touchbacks. We're seeing 70 percent of kickoff drives starting at or inside the 20. Three kickoffs were returned for touchdowns last week. I really don't like the rule change but we'll all have to give it some time.
Q: Don't you think the fact everyone holds Joe Flacco to the highest possible standard means he is elite? Everyone judges Flacco on his postseason but not Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers. Flacco has more playoff wins than those two QBs combined. Flacco has better overall stats than Ryan, who plays in a dome and throws to Roddy White in a pass-happy offense. Can you help settle this once and for all?
Mike in New Orleans
A: You and I are on the same page, but it seems we can't get many others to jump on board. I take more flak for calling Flacco an elite quarterback than just about anything I write. I've seen him make solid fourth-quarterback comebacks. He has good stats. He has playoff wins. It seems as though he won't get total respect until he wins a Super Bowl, but that's unfair. I'm not changing my view in this one. Flacco's elite.
Q: I was wondering what will happen when Carson Palmer returns to the Bengals? I keep hearing that next year he will be released or traded, but does he really have any trade value? And is it possible that the same thing happens that happened this year?
Greg in Philipsburg, Pa.
A: I think he'll show up next February and March and the team will then trade him. Owner Mike Brown would have made his point. He doesn't want players not honoring contracts and demanding trades. If Palmer showed up this season, Brown would have made him play. After making his point, Brown can trade him next March to Miami, Seattle or another team and get value. Remember, Palmer would have been traded for a draft choice or draft choices. The Bengals wouldn't have collected on those draft choices until next April anyway.
Q: You say we need to give John Fox some leeway with the Broncos because, "When you don't have good quarterback play, like the Panthers last season, you endure a 2-14 season. Fox takes over a Denver team that was ruined by the roster decisions of Josh McDaniels. Give him a chance." Wasn't it Fox who signed one of the worst QBs in the league (Jake Delhomme) to a huge extension? How can you rip McDaniels for roster decisions but give Fox a pass?
Kyle in Washington, D.C.
A: Coaches can only coach the talent that is there. McDaniels missed on seven of 10 draft choices and the 2010 class is slowly being moved. His free-agent class of 2010 is gone. That's two years in which the Broncos moved backward instead of moving forward talent-wise. What's Fox supposed to do? What a fan should do is be patient. Mike Shanahan built teams that made playoff runs. McDaniels made personnel decisions that have moved the Broncos to the bottom of the AFC. They were 4-12 last year, weren't they?
Dennis in Fayettville, N.C.
A: Worilds might be a good player, but he's not ready to replace Harrison. Plus, it's not time to replace Harrison. Harrison may be at only about 80 percent because of two offseason surgeries, but he's one of the most feared defenders in football. He's still getting back into his groove and should be fine.
Q: A lot of people are not buying into the Michael Vick hype of 2011. Do you think that his numbers could actually surpass his 2010 totals? Last year he was second on the depth chart before taking over on the fly in Week 1 with little to no preparation. Coming into camp in 2011 as the No. 1 guy must give him a better foundation to succeed, right?
Ryan in Pottstown, Pa.
A: I think his stats can hold up. I just don't know if his body can hold up for 16 weeks of pounding. All you have to do is watch Vick play and you can see he can put the Eagles in position to make the right plays. He's got plenty of weapons. He wins games with his legs and his arm. But his line needs to settle down, find the right combination of blockers and protect him. Until that happens, he might be only a 13-game starter instead of a 16-game starter.
Q: People are criticizing the Jaguars because they don't have a No. 1 receiver. So let's say next year they get a stud receiver in the first round, what would be their expectations in 2012?
Sam in Jacksonville, Fla.
A: They do have a No. 1 wide receiver. His name is Mike Thomas. He's probably one of the best kept secrets in football. He's emerging in Jacksonville like Steve Smith emerged in Carolina. The criticism is not getting enough good receivers around him. Jason Hill was a fourth or fifth option in San Francisco. He moved into the starting job in Jacksonville with little competition. The Jags need more weapons. They also need to sign Thomas to a long-team deal.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter
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