The Steelers are 9-2, tied for the best record in the AFC and the No. 1 seed in the conference by virtue of a razor-thin strength-of-victory tiebreaker advantage over -- you guessed it -- the Patriots. And if this is the year that Pittsburgh is anything other than a speed bump to New England's relatively smooth ride back to the Super Bowl, it will need to play much better over the final five weeks of the regular season.

The good news is that even though the Steelers have yet to play their best football, they are still one of the NFL's best teams. In past years, the Steelers played down to their competition and lost; this team has played down to its competition and still found ways to win. It's not ideal, but it's something.

Early, Ben Roethlisberger and the offense struggled to live up to the "We can score 30 points in our sleep" expectations. Lately, the defense has been exposed. And while it's one thing to allow gunslinger Matthew Stafford to throw for 423 yards, it's something else entirely to have Jacoby Brissett and Brett Hundley combine to go 31 of 50 for 467 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.

Pittsburgh went 3-0 in those games, though they could just as easily have gone 0-3; the Lions didn't score a touchdown despite five trips to the red zone and they lost by five points. And the Steelers needed last-second field goals to eke past both the Colts and Packers, two teams that are on the wrong side of the playoff bubble.

Has defense improved enough to slow down Tom Brady?

Now the bad news: The Patriots aren't the Lions, Colts or Packers, and Tom Brady, even at 40, is the front-runner for his third NFL MVP award. He's the league's best quarterback both in total value and value per play, according to Football Outsiders. And the Pats have the No. 1 overall offense (first in passing, ninth in rushing).

The Steelers, meanwhile, feature their best defense since 2010, which was the last time they made it to the Super Bowl. That group was the league's best, ranking No. 1 against the run and No. 3 against the pass. The 2017 version is young, fast and explosive, though it lost one of its top players, cornerback Joe Haden, for several weeks to a broken leg. This unit ranks third overall (fourth against the run, fifth against the pass), though it is susceptible to the big play. In Week 3, the Bears' Jordan Howard averaged 6.1 yards per carry and gashed the Steelers for 140 yards. In Week 8 Stafford threw for 423 yards and two weeks after that the Colts' Chester Rogers and Donte Moncrief burned the Steelers' secondary for touchdown receptions of 61 and 60 yards. Last week, the Titans' Rishard Matthews had a 75-yard touchdown reception. On Sunday night, Hundley threw touchdown passes of 39, 54 and 55 yards.