Two words immediately came to mind concerning the Steelers in the aftermath of their excellent victory against the Washington Redskins:
They're 6-2 at the midway point of their schedule, and only the Tennessee Titans have a better record in the AFC. At 8-0, the Titans clearly are a good team, but they're hardly great and hardly unbeatable.
They've played only one winning team, Baltimore (5-3), and the combined record of their opponents is 25-40.
More to the point, the AFC is ripe for the taking.
The gold standards of the conference, New England and Indianapolis, are not what they used to be. With Bill Belichick in charge, the Patriots (5-3) are still a worthy opponent, but without quarterback Tom Brady, who is lost for the season, they are not nearly the team they had been.
Indianapolis, which beat New England Sunday, is 4-4. The Colts come to town for a 4:15 p.m. game Sunday at Heinz Field as a team in decline.
Peyton Manning, annually the NFL's most prolific passer, is sixth in yardage, eighth in touchdowns and fourth in interceptions. Whatever the immediate future might hold for the Colts, they are not the team they once were. Their window of opportunity could be in the past.
The perennially underachieving San Diego Chargers (3-5) are at it again, and Denver, usually a force, is 4-4.
Other teams might emerge -- the New York Jets, the Buffalo Bills -- but the point is this: Although the path to the Super Bowl might not be obstacle-free, it is not strewn with formidable opposition.
Coach Mike Tomlin was asked at his weekly news conference yesterday what he thought of his team's 6-2 record at the halfway point of the NFL season.
"I'd prefer to be 8-0," he answered.
Well, the Steelers almost did that in the first half of the season, although no amount of excuses can make the 15-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles anything but a stinkeroo. The other loss, to the New York Giants, is another matter. It went almost unnoted that the Steelers lost to the defending Super Bowl champions, in a game they might have won, without three important offensive starters -- running back Willie Parker, left tackle Marvel Smith and wide receiver Santonio Holmes. That they played the Giants so well without such key players should be considered a positive.
The Steelers' ability to play past the injuries of so many key players truly has been remarkable and speaks to how good they can be once they get close to full strength and stay there.
Among their offensive starters, they've missed Parker and guard Kendall Simmons for four games (half the season), Smith for three, fullback Carey Davis for two and Holmes for one. All except Smith and Simmons (out for the season) should play Sunday.
Among their defensive starters, they have missed nose tackle Casey Hampton and defensive end Brett Keisel for three games, cornerback Bryant McFadden for two and free safety Ryan Clark for one. All except McFadden are expected to be in the lineup against the Colts.
It's hard to imagine a second half with as many important injuries.
More encouraging is the fact that a schedule that once looked to be capable of ruining a team's playoff hopes has cooled considerably. Among the teams the Steelers will play in the final eight games, only Tennessee is better than expected. Indianapolis, New England, San Diego and Dallas all are less than expected.
That's not to suggest the Steelers will win all their remaining games.
They could lose, for example, Sunday to the Colts. But they look to be the class of the AFC North, even with a game remaining at second-place Baltimore.
If they win the division, they have the look of an excellent playoff team. Offensively, they have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in Ben Roethlisberger and the same goes for Parker at running back. The receiving corps is good. The line is, hopefully, a work in progress, but the fact remains they are 6-2 with this line.
The team's real strength, and that was never more obvious than in the 23-6 win Monday, is defense. The Steelers held Clinton Portis, the league's leading rusher, to 51 yards and a 3.9-yard average. In the previous five games, Portis never had been held under 120 yards or a 5.0 average. The Steelers made quarterback Jason Campbell look like a jittery newcomer and not, as the Redskins had thought, a championship-caliber player.
The victory against Washington brought further good news. The Steelers' indispensable man was thought to be Roethlisberger. But the team played much better in the second half behind backup Byron Leftwich than it did in the first half with Roethlisberger, who left with an injury.
This isn't to suggest that Leftwich should replace Roethlisberger.
With eight games remaining anything is possible, but the Steelers' goal of reaching the Super Bowl is not only reasonable -- it's attainable.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .