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Steelers capture a favorable approval rating among NFL onlookers

| Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders avoids Giants punter Steve Weatherford on a punt return in the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

Big wins against marquee teams can quickly change everything about a team, even one that is as reliably successful as the Steelers.

The mood in the locker room is perceptibly different. The confidence level is enhanced. The sideline takes on the feel and look of a winner. The league-wide perception is altered.

The Steelers' come-from-behind 24-20 win over the Super Bowl champion Giants and three-game winning streak convinced many around the NFL they're the real deal again, despite their earlier losses to Oakland and Tennessee.

“The Steelers are a big-game team. The bigger the stakes, the more they're in it,” NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes said Wednesday. “(The Giants' game) just felt big. The Steelers bring an aura to the stage.”

The even-bigger games are about to begin, even as the second half of the season starts Monday night with a matchup against the Chiefs (1-7).

After that, the Steelers (5-3) meet the division-leading Ravens (6-2) twice in three weeks, and Dukes, longtime Dallas Cowboys player personnel chief Gil Brandt and former Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper are convinced those games will decide the AFC North — and possibly more.

Just don't say “Ravens” to the Steelers. Not yet.

“We're not thinking about Baltimore. The word Baltimore or Ravens have not been said one time in this locker room,” receiver Emmanuel Sanders said.

Brandt is convinced the Steelers will win the division, something they couldn't do a year ago when Baltimore and Pittsburgh finished 12-4 but the Ravens swept the season series.

Brandt, an analyst for NFL.com and SiriusXM radio, and Dukes agree in predicting the Texans, Patriots, Steelers, Broncos, Ravens and Colts will end up as the six AFC playoff teams. Sharper, also an NFL Network analyst, is convinced the Steelers and Broncos will compete for the No. 2 seed.

“There are four teams in the AFC, and the rest of the guys are just tagging along,” said Dukes, a former NFL lineman said, referring to the Texans, Patriots, Steelers and Ravens.

The Steelers' longtime persona as a team whose sum is greater than its parts is re-emerging.

The running game has had a 100-yard back in three consecutive games, and the defense has allowed only three points in the fourth quarter in the past three games.

“They epitomize team,” Brandt said. “Ben Roethlisberger throws an interception, and who do I see charging down the field to make a tackle? (Rookie right tackle) Mike Adams. That is coaching. You talk about a team that drafts well, that seems to have a plan, (that figures out) who is going to take whose place down the line. They do a really, really good job, and it reflects in their record.”

The schedule also lines up favorably, with only one remaining opponent having a winning record. The Chiefs and Browns (2-7) are among the NFL's worst teams. And five of the final eight games are at Heinz Field, where the Steelers are 3-0.

“I think they're in great shape,” Brandt said. “But even if they were playing Green Bay and New England, I still think they would win the division.”

The early-season adversity — the Steelers started 2-3 — might have hardened them for the second half.

“The Steelers win in a couple of different ways, and that's the mantra, if you ask me, of a championship-caliber program,” Dukes said. “And that's what the Steelers have — a championship-caliber machine.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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