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Steelers looking super at midseason

November 08, 2004

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The Pittsburgh Steelers wanted to be looked upon merely as legitimate playoff contenders after going 6-10 last season. Consecutive victories over the previously unbeaten Patriots and Eagles have them looking much, much better then that.

How about the best team in football and the midseason favorite to win the Super Bowl? The Steelers (7-1) could legitimately argue Monday they are exactly that as they began preparing to take a six-game winning streak into Cleveland on Sunday.

"We're pretty good," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "To be halfway through the year 7-1, nobody ever thought we'd be in that position. The sky's the limit with this football team."

They wouldn't have been accorded such status only two weeks ago, when they had yet to beat a winning team, but that was before they took out what arguably were the NFL's two best teams so easily that it surprised even them. They led both teams 21-3 before beating the Patriots 34-20 and the Eagles 27-3 in performances so one-sided they brought back memories of the four-time Super Bowl champions of the 1970s.

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Even those Steelers were impressed by the remarkable turnaround going on now in the city where many of them still reside, with former safety Mike Wagner saying before a 1979 Steelers reunion Sunday, "I think this team they have now could compete for a couple of championships."

And not even the 1970s Steelers defeated unbeaten teams on consecutive weeks so late into a season as these Steelers did - a history-making first - though, as center Jeff Hartings said, it took a fortunate bit of scheduling for that to occur.

No matter, it's obvious that a city that never needs much of an excuse to get excited about the Steelers is already thinking playoff run. The Steelers have drawn the two largest crowds in their history in the last two weeks, and linebacker Joey Porter said there's more than post election talk in the air right now.

"The buzz is definitely back," he said. "The whole city is just ecstatic right now."

It's not just because of rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has yet to lose an NFL start, or running back Duce Staley or left guard Alan Faneca or linebacker James Farrior, all of whom are enjoying exceptional seasons.

So far, the Steelers have yet to exhibit a significant weakness, though kicker Jeff Reed is occasionally erratic. The running game that was the NFL's second-worst a season ago now leads the league, just as it did in 2001. A blitz-heavy defense that has regained the aggressiveness it lacked last season is No. 2, allowing only seven touchdowns in the last five games. An injury-free offensive line clearly has been the league's best. And Roethlisberger, who is playing more like a six-year pro than a six-game one, is the NFL's No. 5 passer.

Eagles receiver Terrell Owens, held to 53 yards receiving Sunday, wouldn't be surprised to find Pittsburgh on the opposing sidelines if Philadelphia reaches the Super Bowl.

All of which means ...

"The red dot's on us now," Porter said. "We've beaten the two teams that you guys (the media) said were the best teams. Now the red dot switches to us."

This is the first time since 1978, the third of the Steelers' four Super Bowl championship seasons, that they have been 7-1 at midseason. They were 6-2 three years ago, when they finished 13-3 before being upset at home by New England in the AFC championship game. Their 1995 team that lost to Dallas in the Super Bowl in January 1996 was 4-4.

With half a season remaining - and five of those eight games on the road - Hartings hopes players and fans alike remember how the 2001 team was viewed as a Super Bowl team for weeks, only to lose to New England as a nine-point favorite.

"Those of us who were on that team - and there's a lot of us here - realize it's not over until you reach your goal," he said.

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