Fourth & Goal

Mike Prisuta believes the good bounces Sunday are a sign the defense has been fixed. With that, he looks ahead with optimism.

The Steelers arrived at the bye still seeking perfection but having found an acceptable level.

Their having knocked the Vikings from the ranks of the undefeated was a clear indication that this team remains more than capable.

Their having done so in the manner that they did it, by scoring a pair of defensive TDs in the fourth quarter at the expense of the legendary Brett Favre, suggests the early-season difficulties experienced trying to protect leads are a thing of the past.

Yes, kickoff coverage is suddenly a concern and, yes, the Steelers have been victimized by TDs scored against a unit other than the defense in a head-scratching five consecutive games. That's as inexplicable as their having given up 67 points in first, second and third quarters this season and 62 in fourth quarters.

I acknowledge that, but I'm not going to let it ruin my bye weekend. Instead, consider a nine-game finishing kick ripe with possibilities:

DENVER (Nov. 9, away): I'm still not buying the Broncos or Kyle Orton, but you have to respect their not having allowed a third-down conversion in the second half of four consecutive games. Toss-up.

CINCINNATI (Nov. 15, home): Cedric Benson has re-invented himself and is absolutely the real deal again. So since the Bengals aren't one-dimensional, they're a legitimate contender. Toss-up.

KANSAS CITY (Nov. 22, away): The Chiefs aren't winless because they managed to string four field goals and a safety together on Oct. 18 at Washington. Still, they're a train wreck with or without Larry Johnson. Lay-up.

BALTIMORE (Nov. 29, away; Dec. 27, home): The revamped secondary may be faster, but it's still under siege. That said the offense is much better. And the rivalry hasn't gotten any less intense. Toss-ups.

OAKLAND (Dec. 6, home): The Raiders beat the Chiefs on Sept. 20. Since then they've been outscored 143-29 (somehow managing another win, 13-9 over the Eagles, in that span). The Cable remains on the fritz. Lay-up.

CLEVELAND (Dec. 10, away): Is it possible to flex-schedule games off of a Thursday night so the entire country -- at least the part that gets the NFL Network -- doesn't have to watch? Lay-up.

GREEN BAY (Dec. 20, home): As we speak the Packers are in possession of a Top 10 offense (No. 8) and a Top 10 defense (No. 3). Only the Broncos, Colts, Patriots, Giants and Steelers can also make that claim. And only the Patriots, Giants and Eagles pulled that off a year ago. So why am I not impressed? Because the Packers' victories have been achieved against the Bears, Rams, Lions and Browns, that's why. Lay-up.

MIAMI (Jan. 3, away): After beating Cleveland, Ryan Clark was asked if the Browns' version of the Wildcat might help prepare the Steelers for Miami's much better version. "Hopefully we have it clinched by then," Clark said. Toss-up.

That's four lay-ups and five toss-ups the rest of the way. Make the lay-ups and go 3-2 in the toss-ups and it'll add up to 12-4 and in the tournament.

That remains as reasonable an expectation today as it was in September.

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