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STARKEY: After Pittsburgh Steelers' 7-0 start, is it time to start wondering about 16-0?

JOE STARKEY
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, front left, fumbles the ball while being hit by Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (39) and inside linebacker Vince Williams (98) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, in Baltimore. The Steelers won 28-24. Steelers linebacker Robert Spillane (41) recovered the fumble. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

I don't want to get too crazy here. Unlike Baltimore Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon — who was ejected for taking a swipe at an official — I have not lost my mind.

But I'm at least starting to wonder about 16-0.

I'm convinced 14-2 is reasonable.

Consider: The 7-0 Steelers should be favored in their final nine games with the possible exception of a trip to Buffalo — and the Bills are a .500-quality team masquerading at 6-2.

Laugh now, but once the Steelers beat the Cowboys, Bengals and Jaguars to take a 10-0 record into the Baltimore rematch, the possibility of 16-0 will be an unavoidable talking point.

I'm not predicting it, mind you. I'm well aware of this team's near-annual hideous road loss. I'm also aware it folded down the stretch each of the past two seasons.

But this year's group seems different. It also has yet to hit its stride — and the schedule is friendlier than Marc-Andre Fleury.

Meantime, the Kansas City Chiefs still face trips to Tampa Bay and New Orleans, so the Steelers have a great chance to snag the AFC's lone bye.

It's all in their control now, thanks to a wild, 28-24 victory in Baltimore, one that produced a billion storylines ...

"Backyard football:" I feel like I say this every week, but it's true: Last year's Steelers, given their quarterback predicament, would have had zero chance to win this game.

This year, the coaching staff had the luxury to hand Ben Roethlisberger the keys in the second half and watch him choreograph a masterpiece.

Roethlisberger, after a brutal first half, outplayed Lamar Jackson when it mattered, going 17 of 22 for 160 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. And he did it playing "backyard football."

It was basically Ben dicing the Ravens out of empty sets, in a medium-speed no-huddle, sometimes telling his receivers their assignments on the fly.

"I don't know if we called too many quote-unquote plays in the second half," Roethlisberger said. "It was more, 'Hey, run this, run this, run this.' "

Roethlisberger finished with no turnovers compared to Jackson's four. His final numbers weren't mind-blowing, but don't forget the Ravens also had three pass interference penalties worth 50 yards.

Smith-Schuster playing with fury: JuJu Smith-Schuster again played with Hines Ward-like fury, busting tackles on his way to key first downs. He had seven catches on eight targets.

Roethlisberger described it as “will and desire,” and he wasn’t wrong.

Unhappy with schedule: Make no mistake, the Steelers were less than pleased with how the schedule worked out on account of the Titans’ COVID situation, giving the Ravens a bye week going into this game.

Three times in his postgame media session, Mike Tomlin referenced the Ravens taking advantage of that bye week.

The first was wholly unsolicited.

“They utilized their bye week well,” Tomlin said. “They threw some things at us that we had to adjust to.”

John Harbaugh had been 10-2 after bye weeks.

Bad penalty call: The personal foul call on Cam Heyward was an embarrassment to referee Brad Allen and his crew. Jackson was still inbounds when Heyward crashed in to shove him out.

You can’t hit a guy inbounds anymore?

“That’s the right call,” CBS analyst Tony Romo said. “He’s going out of bounds here.”

But there’s a difference between “going out of bounds” and “out of bounds,” right Tony?

Also, consider this: Later, Jackson did a little tip-toe along the sidelines where he seemed to be 50/50 on whether to stay in or step out, kind of like Patrick Mahomes on that fabulous TD run against Tennessee in the AFC championship. Robert Spillane had Jackson in his sights on the play.

OK to hit him there, or just back off and let the quarterback decide?

Roman excelling: The Steelers should have given a game ball to Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman. His unit mauled them in the run game in the first half (and later on), but, sure enough, with his team up 10 points, Roman ordered a pass on the first play of the second half — picked off by Alex Highsmith.

Jim Nantz couldn’t have been more right when he said, “One pass play changed the entire texture of this game.”

Strong draft: Early returns suggest this could be one of the best draft classes of the Kevin Colbert/Tomlin era. Chase Claypool, Highsmith and Kevin Dotson have made significant contributions. And to borrow a Tomlin phrase, I’m betting there’s “more meat on the bone” with Anthony McFarland Jr.

These guys seem advanced beyond their years. Highsmith, for example, said on his interception that he recognized the call from the first half, when he misplayed it.

“I learned from my mistake,” he said.

Making plays at the end: Like so many Steelers-Ravens games, this one came down to who could make plays at the end.

Two of the Steelers who did: Isaiah Buggs and Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Buggs stopped Jackson on a fourth-and-3 on Baltimore’s second-to-last possession. Fitzpatrick made a spectacular end-zone breakup on the final pass.

Starting to wonder: Of the 38 teams to start 7-0 in the Super Bowl era, 10 won the Super Bowl. Only one went 16-0 — the 2007 Patriots.

I’m not saying the 2020 Steelers will follow suit.

But I’m at least starting to wonder.