Posted: Monday October 18, 2010 4:43PM ; Updated: Tuesday October 19, 2010 6:46PM
Jerome Bettis
Jerome Bettis>INSIDE THE NFL

AFC North is Steelers' to lose, the McCoy express, more Bus Stops

Story Highlights

Ben Roethlisberger showed how dangerous the Steelers offense can be

Chargers are in complete disarray, both on the field and off it

Rams are on verge of being playoff team, plus more thoughts

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rashard-mendenhall.jpg
Rashard Mendenhall's 99 rushing yards per game average ranks third-best in the NFL through Week 6.
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Throughout the 2010 NFL season, SI.com's Nick Zaccardi will work with Jerome Bettis to get the six-time Pro Bowl running back's observations about the latest happenings in the league. Bettis retired from the NFL in 2006 after a 13-year career.

Ben Roethlisberger looked solid in Sunday's dress rehearsal against the Browns. Now we've seen how the Steelers offense operates with a true starting quarterback. Roethlisberger made throws that Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch simply can't replicate and proved his value to Mike Tomlin's offense.

In one third-quarter drive, Roethlisberger marched 96 yards over five plays, spreading the ball to his three primary targets (50 yards to Mike Wallace, 36 yards to Heath Miller and finally a TD to Hines Ward). He finished 16-of-27 for 257 yards with touchdowns to Wallace, Miller and Ward. With that, he lifted the first-place Steelers to 4-1 and out of last place in the NFL in passing yards.

The Pittsburgh offense instantly becomes dangerous. They can rack up yards in big clumps. They can score from anywhere on the field. And don't lose sight of the effect on the running game. Rashard Mendenhall will be seeing fewer eight- and nine-men fronts as defenses are forced to be a little honest.

The AFC North is the Steelers' division to lose. They're only a half-game up on the Ravens, but with Ben back they have that extra gear, so to speak. The road ahead is tough (at Miami, at New Orleans, at Cincinnati, vs. New England), but Pittsburgh proved Sunday they're ready for that challenge.

Colt McCoy also impressed me. Going in, I harbored the same fears as everybody else, that an unprepared McCoy was being thrown to the wolves in Pittsburgh. But the Browns rookie looked really poised as an emergency starter with Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace out.

McCoy (23-of-33, 281 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) made up for his lack of stature by standing up to the Steelers and making some great throws, keeping his team in the game as best he could. If his first start is any indication, McCoy is going to develop into a really good quarterback.

But to develop, he needs more game reps. Let's face it, the chances of the Browns going to the playoffs are really slim anyway. McCoy proved he can handle himself at the helm against a premier defense, so what's keeping Eric Mangini from starting the rookie again this week?

Honestly, I think McCoy gives them the best chance to win the rest of the season anyway. Give him every opportunity to fail. If he does fail, then you know he may not be the quarterback of the future. But if he succeeds, you're set at the position.

The Chargers are in disarray. Who would have thought that they'd be in last place in the AFC West after their soft opening schedule (at Kansas City, vs. Jacksonville, at Seattle, vs. Arizona, at Oakland, at St. Louis)? That's the case after a devastating 20-17 loss to the Rams. It was devastating because their two best receivers -- tight end Antonio Gates and wideout Malcom Floyd -- may have suffered significant injuries.

But as dysfunctional as San Diego has looked on the field, the real problems are upstairs; the decisions management has made clearly affected the team. Look at what happened with LaDainian Tomlinson, Vincent Jackson, Marcus McNeill and, most recently, Shawne Merriman. They may not realize it yet, but what's left of the Chargers is a very average football team.

They've got some soul-searching to do if they really want to be a playoff team. Getting Jackson back at the end of November, if he's even motivated to contribute, may be too little, too late.

When I see helmet-to-helmet hits, I think one thing: I'm glad I'm not playing anymore. I also understand it when a guy like Randy Moss says he doesn't want to run across the middle of the field. That's the danger zone, where so many collisions are unavoidable. They're bang-bang plays at full speed.

Many are calling for stiffer consequences for helmet-to-helmet hits, or even leading with the helmet, but it's not that easy for guys to change the way they play. Take a look at the new rules penalizing players for touching a quarterback's helmet. Pass rushers have realized that even if you try not to, there's no guarantee you won't hit a QB too high, so teams just eat the penalty yards in many cases.

That's not a knock against defensive playmakers. My former teammate James Harrison won't apologize for being physical and getting after you, but I know he's not happy about knocking out two Browns wide receivers. That said, he's still going to play physical. He's going to hit you hard every chance he gets. That's just part of the game.

The Rams are on the verge of being a bona fide playoff team. All they need to do to convince me is win a big game on the road. They could take the next step this week at Tampa Bay.

I've been high on Sam Bradford and his rocket arm since Week 1. The success of the passing game will only make Steven Jackson better. Think of how long he's been waiting for a steady complement to emerge in that offense.

The NFC West is still up for grabs. In the past two weeks, we've seen the Cardinals (3-2) beat the Saints, the Seahawks (3-2) topple the Bears and the 49ers (1-5) finally get in the win column. With the Rams (3-3) coming on, maybe that division is better than we all thought. I still like the 49ers, especially if they can rattle off a winning streak.

A few more quick thoughts ...

--If I'm Andy Reid, I stick with Kevin Kolb as long as he's playing this well.

--The countdown has started in Dallas. I think Wade Phillips makes it through the season, but that's where it ends.

--Brett Favre won't miss a game this season, but he won't play another game after this year, either. All of the allegations against him are enough to welcome retirement.

--Deion Branch still has a lot left in the tank.

--Drew Brees is back on track, and the Saints are out of their slump. That Halloween matchup with the Steelers should be interesting.

NFL's headshot wake-up call
Source: SI
SI.com's Don Banks discusses the increase in devastating hitting and what it could mean to the NFL and it's players. TRT - 02:47.

 
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