The Ravens have opened the door to allow Sunday's Patriots-Steelers game to be a battle for AFC midseason supremacy.
By laying an egg on "Monday Night Football" in a 12-7 loss to the Jaguars, the Ravens suddenly lost a lot of respect among the AFC's best. For weeks, it was thought by most (including us here at PFW, who consistently ranked them No. 3 in our power rankings behind the Pats) that the Ravens would be the stiffest competition for New England.
Sunday's game against the Steelers was going to be a litmus test, anyway. The Patriots face the league's best passing defense and one of its more electric receivers in a road game at Pittsburgh. Now, this win means more, as a Patriots win would cement them as the clear-cut AFC favorite going forward.
The Patriots have already beaten the Jets, Chargers and Raiders, arguably three of the top AFC teams. They don't play the Ravens in the regular season and get a chance for revenge on the Bills in Week 17.
Last season, the Patriots bounced back from what appeared to have been a "reality check" loss to the Browns, 34-14, to beat the Steelers 39-26 the following week. The game wasn't as close as the score, as the Patriots had a 19-point lead with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers have shown some vulnerability this season. Their O-line is improving but certainly is not a strength. They got pounded by the Ravens and scored only 10 points against Houston. They also struggled against Jacksonville.
The Patriots have been automatic after a bye, having not lost following their rest week since 2002. This bye week was crucial to get players healthy, and they should be in good shape to face the Steelers.
Bill Belichick should have his team treating this game like a playoff contest. There remain plenty of doubters around the league about the Pats. That will happen when you lose to the Bills and have the league's worst defense. A win over the Steelers would be a statement to the conference, similar to what it signified last season when the Patriots beat Pittsburgh coming off a loss.
Things change from week to week in the NFL like no other professional sports league, and Monday's loss by the Ravens knocked off the team that most people believed was the clear second-best to New England in the AFC. A win over the Steelers would widen the gap between the Patriots and the rest of the conference.