It's hard to imagine the first six weeks of the NFL season going much better for the Steelers. Even with a debacle at Philly, the Steelers are sitting in much better shape than could have been asked for when the season began.
With the Ravens' blowout loss to the Colts, Pittsburgh (4-1) now has a two-game lead in the division on Baltimore. Add to that the fact that the Steelers have already beaten Baltimore once, which means at worst the Steelers will split the head-to-head series which is the first playoff tiebreaker. Pittsburgh also has a 4-0 conference record compared to Baltimore's 2-3 mark, which is the third playoff tiebreaker. And it will be hard for the Ravens to make a late run at the Steelers, as the most difficult part of the Ravens schedule is back-weighted, as Baltimore will face the Giants, Eagles, Redskins and Cowboys in the second half of the season. Even though Joe Flacco has looked pretty polished for a rookie, it's hard to imagine the Ravens finishing much better than 9-7.
With the Browns turning back into a pumpkin, Pittsburgh has had a lot less competition within the division than expected, but the even more encouraging news comes from around the conference. A year ago, it was hard to get excited about the Steelers playoff chances against the Colts, Chargers, Jaguars and Patriots.
This year it's easy to see flaws everywhere. Pittsburgh has a big flaw of its own with its pass protection problems, but every team it could face in the AFC playoffs has gaping weaknesses as well.
A year later, the Tom Brady-less Patriots (no quarterback) have lost a pair of games by 20 or more points. The Colts (no run defense) are a couple of plays away from 1-4. The Chargers (erratic from week to week) have struggled to reach .500 as have the Jaguars (no receivers) have shown that their passing game has regressed. The Broncos (no defense at all), Bills (very young) and Titans (big passing game questions) have shown they'll be in the thick of the playoff hunt as well.
The AFC still has more depth than the NFC, where no NFC North team looks particularly imposing and the NFC West is largely a wasteland. But it's safe to say that everyone in the AFC is happy to not have to face the NFC East teams when the playoffs roll around.
And as a Steelers fan, that gives me plenty of reasons to be optimistic about January.