Second AFC wild-card totally up for grabs

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Second-day thoughts on the Steelers:

* Considering the quality of the six teams tied at 5-6 -- the sixth best record in the AFC -- the possibility of the second wild-card spot going to a team with an 8-8 record is not out of the question. More than likely one of those teams will finish at 9-7, but in looking at the schedules there are easily two games all could lose.

* Running down the schedules of the six:

Steelers: at Baltimore, Miami, Cincinnati, at Green Bay, Cleveland

Tennessee: at Indianapolis, at Denver, Arizona, at Jacksonville, Houston

Baltimore: Steelers, Minnesota, at Detroit, New England, at Cincinnati

N.Y. Jets: Miami, Oakland, at Carolina, Cleveland, at Miami

San Diego: Cincinnati, Giants, at Denver, Oakland, Kansas City

Miami: at Jets, at Steelers, New England, at Buffalo, Jets

* Games those teams could lose with no one being surprised:

Steelers: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Green Bay

Tennessee: Indianapolis, Denver, Arizona

Baltimore: Steelers, Detroit, New England, Cincinnati

San Diego: Cincinnati, Denver, Kansas City

Miami: Steelers, New England

* The excellent play of the Steelers defense in the past three games can partially be explained by the quality of the opposition, but nevertheless the upgrade remains a surprise. The defense has allowed only three touchdowns of any consequence, all in the second quarter against Detroit. Of note, Cam Heyward, the No. 1 draft choice in 2011, appears to be coming into his own as a force and starting to live up to the high expectations.

* The improved play of the defense only makes salary-cap decisions after the season all the more difficult. Once it was expected that players such as Ziggy Hood, Jason Worilds, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu might not be brought back. Now all those decisions require more thought.

* Who knew? Worilds, something close to a bust in his first three seasons with the Steelers after being a second-round choice in 2010, is playing the best football of his career since getting a chance at left outside linebacker with LaMarr Woodley out with injury. He had five quarterback hurries and six tackles yesterday.

* As expected, the offensive line is improving. David DeCastro is becoming a dominant player at guard. Kelvin Beachum might not be the answer at left tackle -- he certainly doesn’t have the pedigree -- but his play is improving and the Steelers might be willing to allow him to keep that job. If so, what a find!

* No player has answered the challenge of high expectations more than Antonio Brown, who not only leads the NFL in receptions with 80 -- six more than the runnerup -- but is second yards with 1,044. He also has caught 16 passes of 20 or more yards, which is third best in the league.

* Biggest surprise of the season: The play of William Gay at cornerback, where he forced a fumble that set up a touchdown and scored a TD on an interception yesterday. Gay had a team-high 11 tackles against Buffalo and did not allow a receiver he was covering catch a pass against the Lions.

* The Steelers received a huge break yesterday when Gay was not called for a penalty when he stripped quarterback Jason Campbell of the ball on the play that set up an easy touchdown. Gay should have been called for a hit to the head of the quarterback, which would have negated the fumble and Will Allen’s return to the Cleveland 4. It likely would not have affected the outcome, but the play altered the momentum of the game.


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