Steelers ride James Conner, improved defense into AFC contention

The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the first half of the season with a 5-2-1 record. Here’s a look at how they have fared and what’s ahead:

First-half rewind: This season has stayed true to the Steelers' identity, mixing brilliant moments with curious lapses. A three-game winning streak quelled concerns after a 1-2-1 start. The offensive line was tremendous in October, helping James Conner post three straight 100-yard rushing games while Ben Roethlisberger took one sack. The defense was among the league's worst through the first four weeks, keeping the Steelers from an above-average grade, but things have settled down with more defined roles on third downs. Five different players have at least 2.5 sacks, led by T.J. Watt with seven. And JuJu Smith-Schuster has become an upper-tier receiver on pace for nearly 1,400 yards. Grade: Above average

What has to happen for the Steelers to make the playoffs?: Have Baltimore fall into mediocrity and beat Cincinnati in Week 17. A wild-card berth for the AFC North is no layup after strong starts by the Patriots, Chiefs, Chargers and Texans, so the Steelers need more separation from the Ravens and Bengals. The Steelers have lost a combined six straight games at Oakland and Denver, two places they travel over the final six weeks. They need at least one win on that swing.

MVP: Roethlisberger. This race isn't so clear-cut because several playmakers -- from Antonio Brown to Smith-Schuster to Conner -- have put up big numbers but haven't carried the team to victories, either. The offensive line has been collectively good. Watt and Joe Haden are among the defensive standouts, but the unit was too shaky as a whole early in the season. That leaves Roethlisberger, who has had issues keeping the ball (seven interceptions, five fumbles) but is sixth in the league in passing entering Week 9 (2,290 yards) and is flirting with 700 passing attempts on the season.

Hurdle to overcome: The Steelers stood pat at the trade deadline, leaving uncertainty at cornerback opposite Haden. Third-year corner Artie Burns has struggled mightily, leaving veteran Coty Sensabaugh and Cam Sutton to fill out the rotation at that spot. Is this a championship-level defense with the secondary intact? The Steelers hope a versatile third-down package with safety Morgan Burnett, linebacker L.J. Fort and others can offset the lack of high-level corners.