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AFC title within reach in Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a hard-nosed team built around one of the league’s most ferocious defenses. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have players who can hurt you on offense.In addition to that very talented defense, which is ranked No.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a hard-nosed team built around one of the league's most ferocious defenses. But that doesn't mean they don't have players who can hurt you on offense.

In addition to that very talented defense, which is ranked No. 1 in the NFL, Head Coach Bill Cowher is capable of coming at you in a variety of ways on the other side of the ball. He can pound away with the league's top-ranked rushing attack, can opt to have quarterback Kordell Stewart choose from a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress or he can unleash his ultimate weapon — Stewart himself.

Stewart as a weapon? Isn't this the guy who was the laughing stock of the league for the last couple of seasons as the Steelers stumbled to mediocre records? That's the one, but this is a much different quarterback. Stewart more closely resembles the dangerous "Slash" character he victimized opposing defenses with back in 1997 when he threw 21 touchdown passes and ran for 11 more.

This season, the seventh-year veteran was very efficient in a more simplified offense. He completed 60.2 percent of his 442 passes and threw for 3,109 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also ran for 536 yards and five touchdowns, leading the team in the latter category.

New offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey tried to take some pressure off of Stewart, who looked lost and confused much of the time in recent seasons. Rather than have his quarterback search out a suitable receiver, Mularkey instructed Stewart to have a receiver in mind when he broke the huddle and if things didn't look right, simply tuck the ball and run.

That style has fit Stewart perfectly. He was reluctant to get out of the pocket in the last couple of seasons but is back to the freestyle approach that made him the talk of the league in 1997. His gifted stable of receivers also hasn't hurt. Ward is a player in Stewart's mold. He played some quarterback in his college days at Georgia and emerged as the Steelers top pass-catching threat this season.

He set a club mark with 94 catches for 1,003 yards while adding four touchdowns. He's more in the move-the-chains mold and will give the Patriots secondary a stern test. Second-year man Plaxico Burress shook off an inconsistent rookie campaign and exploded into a dangerous receiver. He averaged 15.3 yards on his 66 catches and joined Ward in the 1,000-yard club with 1,008. He also led the team with six touchdowns and added another last week against the Ravens.

Burress could pose the biggest challenge to the Patriots defensive backs because of his considerable size. He stands 6-5 and has a knack of out-leaping smaller defenders and fighting them for jump balls, which Stewart occasionally asks him to do.

Pittsburgh's receiving corps has solid depth as well with Bobby Shaw and Troy Edwards capable of making big plays if left alone. Stewart likes to spread the ball to all of them.

The ground game, which was the major reason the Steelers jumped out to a 9-2 record, was able to withstand the loss of Jerome Bettis. Bettis injured his groin on Dec. 2 and hasn't played since, but the Steelers won five of the six they played without him with the only stumble coming in a late-game collapse at Cincinnati.

Bettis was set to return last week against Baltimore but suffered a setback when the shot he received to dull the pain struck a nerve and caused his leg to go numb. Assuming he's recovered enough to return, the Steelers will be getting their 1,000-yard rusher back in the lineup — not good news for the Patriots defense.

Stewart also is instrumental in the Pittsburgh running game. Unlike some mobile quarterbacks, Stewart's rushing yards come largely from planned runs. Cowher had him try several quarterback draws against the Ravens tough defensive front last week and Stewart picked up key first downs while carrying 10 times for 30 yards.

If Bettis is unavailable, look for Amos Zereoue to replace him. He picked up 63 tough yards last week on 24 carries and added a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs.

Despite the Steelers offensive success, this team's strength still lies on defense, where rookies Kendrell Bell and Casey Hampton have blended well with Jason Gildon, the defense's lone Pro Bowler. In other words, this is a very balanced team, and if the Patriots make their third Super Bowl trip, they'll have earned it.

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