Rested Steelers hoping for hot start to "December football" as struggling Saints visit

Forget about the surprisingly small number in the win column. Last time Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor checked, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints were still dangerous.

Besides, even at 4-7 the Saints are in first place in the NFC South.

No, seriously.

It's a distinction the Steelers (7-4) can't boast. Even after winning four of five, Pittsburgh heads to the final weekend in November tied for last in the AFC North. So forgive Taylor if he talks about the Saints as if they're a potential playoff team.

"Four wins ain't got nothing to do with No. 2 offense in the league, No. 3 passing," Taylor said. "They can say what they want to say, they're still the top offense in this league."

And as ugly as it has looked at times, Saints coach Sean Payton isn't letting his frustration bubble over. Since the NFL expanded to a 12-team postseason format in 1990, 17 teams who were under .500 after 11 games made the playoffs, with seven of them winning at least once in January before bowing out.

New Orleans is convinced it can get there even if whatever wiggle room the Saints have could disappear if they don't get it together soon.

"I think they're grown men and they're smart enough to understand what's at stake," coach Sean Payton said. "But make no mistake about it, we've got to play better football."

Which is something the Steelers have been doing for more than a month, even if they haven't made any inroads on first-place Cincinnati. It will likely take at least 10 wins and probably 11 to emerge from the crowded AFC North with a playoff spot. Pittsburgh figures it has already used up its allotment of losses to teams with dreadful records after falling to Tampa Bay and the New York Jets. The difference between those two teams and the Saints is obvious. Neither of those two has Brees.

"He don't do nothing wrong, you know," Taylor said of Brees. "He's the Peyton Manning, Tom Brady. He's that caliber."

Of course, Taylor includes Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger into that group, too. The 11-year veteran is in the midst of the finest statistical season of his career. It won't matter much, though, if the Steelers fail to make it to January.

"We've got to put together a stretch of football like we never played before," Roethlisberger said.

Some things to look for as New Orleans searches for respect and the Steelers try to build momentum:

HOMECOMING I: Pittsburgh wide receiver Lance Moore spent nine seasons in New Orleans and his 346 grabs with the Saints rank fifth in franchise history. He's still waiting for his role to be defined with the Steelers. This week that role included giving insight on how Brees works.

"I have no problem sharing that information if I think it will help us win," Moore said.

HOMECOMING II: New Orleans cornerback Keenan Lewis played four years with the Steelers before the Saints lured him home in 2013. Lewis is now one of the most consistent players on an inconsistent defense and will find himself matched up with good friend Antonio Brown, who happens to lead the NFL in receptions.

NEW FACES: Pittsburgh's bye week wasn't completely drama free. The Steelers cut running back LeGarrette Blount one day after a 27-24 Monday night win over Tennessee when Blount headed to the locker room before the final gun as a small protest for his lack of carries. Blount's abrupt departure led the Steelers to promote undrafted rookie Josh Harris to the active squad. Harris now finds himself as the primary backup to workhorse Le'Veon Bell.

FEELING GOOD: The Steelers are 6-1 following bye weeks under coach Mike Tomlin and are getting healthy at the right time. Taylor will likely play after missing two months with a broken right forearm. Safety Troy Polamalu's sprained knee is also good to go.

"Seeing young guys come up, make plays, do what they need to do is exciting," Taylor said. "For me to get out there with them, I feel good."

ROAD BLUES: The Saints are just 1-4 away from the Superdome this season and will likely see rain and blustery conditions at Heinz Field. It's not exactly ideal for an offense predicated on timing and precision.

"There is always a wind there that you have to be mindful of," Payton said. "You pay to extra attention to the footing, what type of cleats you're wearing, and you'll make sure you get acclimated pregame. Make sure you have the right shoes on, that's important."

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AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.

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