A cold dose of reality

KEN FIDLIN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:57 AM ET

The Pittsburgh Steelers gave the Tom Brady-less New England Patriots a sobering reality check yesterday afternoon, beating them 33-10.

Just in case anyone was confusing understudy quarterback Matt Cassel with the real thing, the Steelers made it clear in the second half of this key AFC matchup that Cassel still has a ways to go in his apprenticeship.

Pittsburgh forced five turnovers and did not allow the Pats to convert one third down in 11 tries, in what turned out to be a major statement game for the Steelers who maintain a one-game lead over Baltimore atop the AFC North.

After New England opened up an early 10-3 lead, Pittsburgh reeled off 30 unanswered points.

After back-to-back 400-yard-plus passing games by Cassel, people were starting to mumble "Tom Who?" Not anymore. The Pats remain just a game behind the Jets in the AFC East but the thrashing has to temper their enthusiasm. The Pats do have four winnable games remaining but it is now questionable if they are good enough to do much damage even if they do squeak into the playoffs.

PACK SACKED

You already can hear the wailing and moaning up on the frozen tundra now that the Packers have been all but eliminated from a shot at the post-season, just a year after they had advanced to the NFC title game.

As if there hasn't been enough pressure on quarterback Aaron Rodgers after the off-season Brett Favre soap opera, he will, of course, take the brunt of the heat despite the fact that he has been extraordinarily effective in the difficult role of replacing a legend.

But it wasn't Rodgers who called three consecutive runs down at the goal line late yesterday in a tie game, and it wasn't Rodgers who elected to kick a field goal instead of punching it in for a TD. And it wasn't Rodgers who gave up kick returns of 51 and 45 yards that led to two Carolina TDs, including the game-winner in the last two minutes.

Rodgers and the Green Bay pass offence had been dominating the Carolina defence in rebounding from a 21-10 deficit, yet head coach Mike McCarthy -- conservative to the core -- ordered three ineffective runs inside the Carolina 10 with the score tied at 28-28. When that failed and they settled for the field goal, they left way too much time for the Panthers, who took advantage.

This was a benchmark win for Carolina, which now faces a monster test against the Tampa Bay Bucs next week on Monday Night Football. The Panthers and Bucs are tied atop the NFC South at 9-3 and the winner will have a leg up on the division title.

DR. JEKYLL, MR. HYDE

Hard to figure out the Denver Broncos. Are they the outfit that beat quality teams such as Tampa, Atlanta and, yesterday, the Jets? Or are they the sad outfit that was thrashed by Kansas City, Oakland and New England by a combined score of 105-36?

Truth is, they can be anything they want and still make the playoffs because the AFC West is football's black hole. With San Diego's demise almost complete after its defeat by Atlanta yesterday, the Broncos are three full games up and can pretty much sleepwalk the rest of the way to a division title.

Denver has a world class offence but its defence has been among the most porous in the league. Denver's 319 points allowed are a joke compared to other division leaders such as Pittsburgh (170) or Tennessee (175).

But when the Broncos step up against a hot team and deal out some punishment, other teams have to be nervous because it's never clear which version of the Broncos is going to show up.


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