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Posted: Sunday November 22, 2009 6:33PM; Updated: Monday November 23, 2009 3:19PM
Don Banks
Don Banks>INSIDE THE NFL

Snap Judgments: Steelers, Ravens stumble to set up must-win game

Story Highlights

The defending Super Bowl champion Steelers are suddenly sluggish

The Steelers' struggles on kickoff coverage this year is mind-blowing

It's pretty obvious we vastly overrated the NFC East this season

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Gary Brackett and the Colts dealt the Ravens their fifth loss in their last seven games.
AP

DENVER -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from the Mile High City as we run down the curious doings of Week 11 in the NFL ...

• We knew Pittsburgh at Baltimore was going to be a big game next week, but we never dreamed the amount of desperation that would be in the air. On both sides of the field, a season might just be on the line. Hyperbole? Not really.

What exactly has happened to the two teams that met in the AFC Championship game a scant 10 months ago? The Ravens, after that deceptive 3-0 start, lost for the fifth time in seven games on Sunday, and will enter Week 12 barely clinging to their wild-card hopes at 5-5. In falling to the visiting Colts 17-15, Baltimore has already matched its season loss total of last year, and the Ravens .500 record looks even weaker when you consider that it includes two wins against Cleveland and another against Kansas City.

And then there's the suddenly sluggish defending Super Bowl champion Steelers, who fell 27-24 in overtime at Kansas City (3-7) on Sunday, in one of the more eye-opening upsets in the NFL this season. In dropping its second game in a row after getting to 6-2 at midseason, the Steelers are staggering toward December and look to be giving in to a delayed case of post-Super Bowl syndrome.

Pittsburgh (6-4) remains solidly in wild-card contention, but in an AFC that could feature eight teams with at least six wins by the end of Week 11, it can't take anything for granted these days. This much we know: A win at Baltimore is now probably mandatory if Mike Tomlin's club is to have any hope to chase down first-place Cincinnati, which has upcoming home games against Cleveland and Detroit. The Steelers fell to 4-3 in AFC games with the loss to the Chiefs, and Pittsburgh can't afford to drop its division mark to 1-3 next week and still entertain dreams of pulling off a Super Bowl repeat.

The Ravens and Steelers are just two more fresh reminders that last year was an eternity ago in the NFL.

• A few things that absolutely blow my mind about the Steelers' struggles on kickoff coverage this year:

-- After making backup linebacker Arnold Harrison a sacrificial lamb last week, cutting him in response to Pittsburgh allowing a league-high three kickoff return touchdowns in the past four games, the Steelers promptly surrendered a 97-yard opening kickoff return touchdown to Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles on Sunday to make it four allowed in five games. Whose head is on the chopping block this week, Steelers' third-year special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky?

-- The Steelers only once in their history had allowed as many as three kickoff return touchdowns in the same season, in 1986. The only other teams in the league besides Pittsburgh that have allowed multiple kickoff return touchdowns this season are Oakland and the New York Jets, with two. Of the league's 32 teams, 23 of them entered Week 11 without having surrendered a score on a kickoff return.

-- Pittsburgh is getting killed by touchdown returns of every kind. They've now allowed a scoring return -- kickoffs, fumbles or interceptions -- in a team-record-tying eighth consecutive game. By comparison, the Steelers defense entered Week 11 having only allowed nine touchdowns in its first nine games this season.

-- Oh, and did we mention that in their Super Bowl season of 2008 the Steelers allowed no kickoff return touchdowns, and led the league in kickoff coverage, at 19.1 yards allowed?

• It's pretty obvious we vastly overrated the NFC East this season. Who knows, maybe all three contending teams wind up in the playoffs, but I don't see any powerhouses capable of making a long run in January.

The Cowboys, for the second week in a row, were dreadful on offense, somehow surviving 7-6 at home against Washington. With a game at home against Oakland coming up on Thanksgiving, Dallas should be 8-3 by Thursday night. But I don't think anybody's fearing the Cowboys about now. Against the Redskins, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo didn't complete a pass to one of his receivers until the final play of the third quarter.

The Giants kept their season alive with a 34-31 win at home in overtime against the Falcons, snapping Big Blue's four-game losing streak. But if you're New York, you can't be happy about losing a 31-17 lead with a little more than six minutes remaining. The Giants' defense couldn't stop Atlanta when it really mattered, and now comes a short-week road trip to Denver for a tough Thanksgiving night game.

The Eagles took their two-game losing streak and so-so 5-4 record into Chicago's Soldier Field on Sunday night. With its 24-20 win, Philly sits in a tie for second with the Giants, and while that would indicate that competition is alive and well in the division, true dominance remains in short supply.

• Of course the Ravens were a field goal away from beating the hated Colts at home. How else could this game have turned out after Baltimore cut errant kicker Steve Hauschka last week and signed Billy Cundiff to replace him? Cundiff made five field goals for the Ravens against Indianapolis, in perfect descending order of 46, 44, 38, 36 and 20 yards. But it was the 30-yard attempt he pushed wide right in the third quarter that doomed Baltimore.

The Colts' winning points? Naturally those were provided by longtime ex-Ravens kicker Matt Stover, who hit his only attempt of the day, from 25 yards, to put Indy up 17-15 with 7:02 remaining. Sometimes poetic justice just has to prevail.

• Boy, Ryan Fitzpatrick wasn't kidding when he said he wanted to prioritize getting Terrell Owens involved, and involved early, in the Bills offense. Smart move by the quarterback from Harvard. If you want to get the best out of T.O., he has to feel like he's your first read on virtually every pass play.

Owens finished with as season-high nine catches for 197 yards in Buffalo's 18-15 loss at Jacksonville, including that monster 98-yard, club-record scoring bomb in the third quarter.

• New head coach for Buffalo, but same old whatever-it-takes-to-lose Bills. Interim head coach Perry Fewell had his guys in position to pull off the upset against the surprising Jaguars (6-4), but they couldn't seal the deal, giving up the game-winning touchdown by Mike Sims-Walker with 56 seconds remaining. Buffalo played hard, but it usually did that for fired head coach Dick Jauron, too. We saw Jauron's Bills let a ton of late leads get away over the past four seasons.

Robert Meachem is rapidly turning into a latter-day Cris Carter. All the third-year Saints receiver does is catch touchdowns. Meachem had two more scoring catches in the first half of New Orleans' 38-7 win at Tampa Bay, and that meant he had six touchdowns on his first 16 catches of the season. In his career, Meachem has 28 receptions, and he has scored on nine of them (or 32 percent)

Meachem is definitely one of Drew Brees' favorite targets in the red zone. He has five touchdowns in the past five games he has played, and Brees is starting to look for him first when New Orleans is down close to the goal line. His touchdowns were from 4 and 6 yards on Sunday.

• This much we already know about Josh Freeman: The Bucs rookie quarterback is at his most dangerous when he's out of the pocket and on the move. For the third consecutive week, Freeman looked his best when things started to break down around him and he went the improvisational route. His 18-yard touchdown strike to Michael Clayton in the extreme back corner of the end zone against the Saints was the latest example of his accuracy on the move.

That play also provided Tampa Bay with the only points it scored all day against undefeated New Orleans. After the Bucs grabbed a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, the Saints reeled off the game's final 38 points.

Brad Childress has had the hot hand of late -- see drafting of Percy Harvin, signing of Brett Favre -- but why do NFL owners feel compelled to lock up head coaches even before they enter the offseason before their lame duck year? I suppose they're looking for a bargain, but it's a risky move than can easily look premature in time.

Minnesota dismantled Seattle 35-9 at home on Sunday and, at 9-1, appears bound for big things this year. But the Vikings wouldn't be the first juggernaut to go one-and-done in the playoffs of late. Last year alone, top-seeded Tennessee (13-3) in the AFC and the top-seeded Giants (12-4) in the NFC bit the dust at home in the divisional round.

Would the season really feel like a success in Minnesota if Childress's Vikings fail to win a playoff game for the second January in a row? More importantly, like Vikings owner Zygi Wilf wouldn't have been able to extend Childress's contract after this season if Minnesota had won it all?

• It's probably just a coincidence, but the Chiefs are 2-0 since jettisoning the high-profile headache named Larry Johnson. Kansas City just won consecutive games for the first time since September 2007, and if the Scott Pioli-Todd Haley regime rebuilds the Chiefs into winners, the overtime upset of Pittsburgh might some day be looked at as the game that began the turnaround.

• The biggest play in the Chiefs' win was that 61-yard catch-and-run in overtime by veteran receiver Chris Chambers, who just got to Kansas City a few weeks back after San Diego released him. Chambers has been a godsend for the Chiefs thus far, and he finished with a team-best four receptions for 119 yards against Pittsburgh.

Guess who (and where) the Chiefs play next week? Of course, at San Diego. Chambers gets his first shot at earning some revenge against his old teammates.

• That's a critical and damaging loss for Green Bay, having to play the rest of the season without cornerback Al Harris, who reportedly suffered a torn left ACL in the win over San Francisco. The Packers also lost outside linebacker Aaron Kampman with a left knee injury, but we don't know the severity of that at this point.

• Just when I thought we could start to re-bury 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, he throws three second-half touchdown passes and nearly brings San Francisco all the way back from a 30-10 fourth-quarter deficit at Lambeau Field. OK. Let's put down the shovel for at least another week.

• Between Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, last year's rookie quarterback phenoms have tossed some critical interceptions this time around. Flacco cost the Ravens a chance to win against Indy with an ugly interception deep in Colts' territory with 2:42 remaining. As easy as Ryan and Flacco made it look last season, 2009 has largely been a different story.

• Speaking of rookie quarterbacks, Detroit's Matthew Stafford won't ever forget Week 11 of his first season in the NFL. He became the first rookie passer in 59 years to throw five touchdown passes in a game, with the final one providing the winning points in the Lions' dramatic 39-38 win against Cleveland. Stafford had only tossed six touchdowns in his first seven games of the season, but he darn near doubled his production in just four quarters.

• If only the Lions and the Browns could play each other every week. Then they'd at least resemble NFL teams. At least on offense. For the Browns, maybe this was some sort of karmic payback for that hideous 6-3 win at Buffalo earlier this year.

• Looks like Rex Ryan might really have something to cry about this week. With a New York loss at New England, the Jets, at 4-6, are basically dead in the water in the AFC playoff hunt.

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