Seattle is playing like a team on track for another Super Bowl.

Pittsburgh is not.

In a weekend full of strange doings, the Seahawks finally got their offense on track against the New York Giants’ struggling defense. Despite some late mishaps, Seattle looked every bit a team headed for its second straight NFC championship.

The Steelers? With Ben Roethlisberger still struggling (the official term seems to be “rusty”), they are 1-2. Sure, they came back from a mediocre first three-quarters of last season and won the whole thing, but this could be harder – they are down two games to both Cincinnati and Baltimore in the improved AFC North,

At the top level, Sunday provided a little definition to the early season, even in Week 3.

But there also were some things that seemed very awry.

For one, visiting teams won 10 of the 13 games, including the Bengals over the Steelers in Pittsburgh and Chicago’s late win over the Vikings in Minneapolis, which set a tone for the two Norths. That’s part of the early trend: after three weeks, visitors were a remarkable 25-20, not counting Atlanta’s visit to New Orleans Monday night.

But maybe the most interesting part were the disparate fates of the two most recent Super Bowl participants.

The Steelers’ 28-20 loss at home to the Bengals was not simply a case of Carson Palmer’s ability to find Chris Henry and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the end zone. The last two TDs, to Houshmandzadeh, came a minute apart in the final quarter after fumbles by Ricardo Colclough (on a punt) and Verron Haynes.

Those fumbles were among five turnovers by the Steelers. Indeed, turnovers played a huge role in results around the league.Three were interceptions thrown by Roethlisberger, who is recovering from an offseason motorcycle accident and appendicitis attack and was 18-of-39 for 209 yards.

Two of the INTs were with Pittsburgh in scoring position, including one on a third-and-10 from the Bengals 16 with Pittsburgh trying to tie the score in the closing seconds. But even more important may have been one Roethlisberger threw on first-down from the Cincinnati 6 on the first play of the second quarter when the Steelers seemed about to take a 14-0 lead.

Yes, the Steelers made the playoffs as the sixth and last seed in the AFC last season and won four straight to take the title. But now they are chasing two 3-0 teams in the AFC North after the Ravens capitalized on an interception of Charlie Frye to win in Cleveland on Matt Stover’s last-second 52-yard field goal.

“There were a lot of ebbs and flows, but I think today was a big step for me,” Roethlisberger said.

He had better be right, because there are signs he will be needed more this year, both as a passer and a leader. There is no Jerome Bettis to do the leading and the short-yardage running, and the receiving corps is depleted with the departure of Antwaan Randle El.

So Big Ben, “rust” and all, will have to carry a bigger load.

As for Seattle, the Seahawks’ defense was solid in its first two games, but not so the offense.

That changed Sunday, when Seattle jumped to a 35-0 lead en route to a 42-30 win over the Giants, whose louder mouths – Jeremy Shockey this time – shouted “we were outcoached.”

One major element was having Deion Branch. Not in numbers (two catches for 23 yards) but in the fact the Seahawks were able to play a four-wide-receiver alignment that had New York confused and led to five TD passes by Matt Hasselbeck.

“It was a pleasure to play a little different way,” offensive coordinator Gil Haskell said.

It didn’t hurt that the Seattle defense came up with three first-quarter interceptions against a team that should have beaten the Seahawks last year and expected to be better this year. It’s early, but Seattle has a schedule that easily could give it home-field advantage again in the NFC.

– although given those home-away numbers, that might not mean anything.

The Seahawks go to Chicago next Sunday night in what will be more a test for the Bears than Seattle. Chicago’s win in Minnesota wasn’t very pretty, after all. Beyond that, there’s little that looks threatening other than a trip to Denver on Dec. 3 and a home game with San Diego three weeks later. Fortunately for the Seahawks, the NFC West might be almost as bad as the NFC North.


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