Steelers try to stop their second unbeaten team

Posted: Friday, November 05, 2004

One unbeaten down, a second arriving in Pittsburgh this Sunday.

After ending New England's 21-game winning streak last week, the Steelers greet the NFL's last unbeaten team, playing Philadelphia for the Pennsylvania championship in a game that down the line might be a preview of a matchup for a much grander title.

Still, the Steelers could set their own little record, becoming the first team ever to win back-to-back games against teams 6-0 or better coming in.

''We've got a great running game, two dominant wide receivers and a young, confident, cocky quarterback back there playing his heart out,'' says wide receiver Hines Ward, one of many effective offensive weapons for the Steelers. ''We're a hard team to beat.''

The young, cocky quarterback, of course, is Ben Roethlisberger, the rookie who has won his first five starts, almost unprecedented, even for a first-round draft choice.

But the centerpiece of this game is likely to be Duce Staley, who spent his first seven years in Philadelphia, grousing from time to time about being underused. He certainly hasn't groused in Pittsburgh, where he has run for 707 yards, seventh in the NFL.

That's one reason Roethlisberger has been so successful opponents have to play the run. In the Steelers' 34-20 win over the Patriots last week, they ran for 221 yards, 125 by Staley, making life a lot easier for Big Ben. Staley and Jerome Bettis will be critical this week because Jim Johnson, Philly's defensive coordinator, puts together fearsome blitz packages.

This game, of course, means more to Pittsburgh than a state championship. And it means more than beating an unbeaten for the second straight week.

At 6-1, the Steelers are two games ahead of Baltimore in the AFC North and tied with the Patriots and Jets for the AFC's best record. And while it's far too early to talk about tiebreakers, their win over New England gives them one over the Patriots if it comes down to that for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Minnesota (5-2) at Indianapolis (4-3) (Monday night)

Another potential shootout for Indy, which has lost two straight and is in a battle in the AFC South with two upstarts, Jacksonville and Houston. As usual, the problem is defense the Colts lost 45-35 in Kansas City last week, allowing 590 yards to the Chiefs to offset the 505 they gained.

The Vikings and Daunte Culpepper were shut down at home last week by the Giants, gaining just over 200 yards of offense until they were down 34-0 and got garbage yards and two touchdowns. That cut their lead in the NFC North to a game over Detroit and a game-and-a-half over Green Bay with a tough schedule ahead.

Omen? Last season, Minnesota was 6-0 when it lost to New York and wound up 9-7.

New England (6-1) at St. Louis (4-3)

The second straight tough road game for the Patriots, although the inconsistent Rams have been nothing like the team that dominated the NFC a few years back. That domination ended when the Patriots upset them in the 2002 Super Bowl as Bill Belichick outcoached Mike Martz.

New England not only had its 21-game winning streak snapped in Pittsburgh but lost All-Pro cornerback Ty Law for four to six weeks with a broken foot. That's not a good thing going into the dome, although linebacker Tedy Bruschi says: ''Whoever goes down, we feel like whoever comes in can do the job, because that's what we've done in the past.''

Cleveland (3-4) at Baltimore (4-3)

The Browns beat the Ravens on opening day in Cleveland and have played remarkably well considering the injuries (Kellen Winslow Jr., Courtney Brown, et al.) and the early discord between Jeff Garcia and Butch Davis.

The Ravens get back Jamal Lewis from his two-game suspension, although Jonathan Ogden, the left tackle, still has hamstring troubles. They played Philadelphia close on the road and Brian Billick went out of his way to praise Ethan Brooks, who was beaten badly when he replaced Ogden in the opener, but improved against the Eagles.

Kansas City (3-4) at Tampa Bay (2-5)

The Chiefs have scored 101 points in two wins and are back in the AFC West race. They trail Denver and San Diego by just one game in the loss column. The defense remains suspect, but Priest Holmes is on a tear, leading the league in rushing (833 yards) and touchdowns (14).

The Tampa Bay defense isn't what it used to be, but there are enough first-rate players left (Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, Anthony McFarland) to make things harder for the Chiefs. Brian Griese has played well since taking over at quarterback his passer rating is 103.9.

Houston (4-3) at Denver (5-3)

The Texans are quietly sneaking into playoff contention after last week's win over Jacksonville. Owner Bob McNair, GM Charley Casserly and coach Dom Capers seem to have built an expansion franchise exactly the right way.

Denver looked like a potential Super Bowl team until the last two weeks, with losses at Cincinnati and at home to Atlanta. Jake Plummer threw for 499 yards in the 41-28 loss to the Falcons, but had three interceptions, more proof that passing yardage can be a deceptive statistic.

New York Jets (6-1) at Buffalo (2-5)

The Bills kept it close at the Meadowlands a month ago, trailing 13-0, taking a late lead, then losing on Doug Brien's late field goal. Willis McGahee had 101 yards rushing last week in a 38-14 win over Arizona, the best offensive performance of the season by a team whose previous high in points was 20.

The Jets also got a first-rate performance from a backup running back, Lamont Jordan, who rushed for 115 yards after Curtis Martin had put up the same number in a 41-14 romp over Miami.

Chicago (2-5) at New York Giants (5-2)

The Bears won in Craig Krenzel's first start, but the Giants aren't the 49ers and Kurt Warner isn't Ken Dorsey. If defensive coordinator Tim Lewis' schemes confused Daunte Culpepper last week, what will they do to the inexperienced Krenzel?

Odd stat: Despite the Giants' success, Kurt Warner has only four touchdown passes in seven games. But the Giants have 11 TDs on the ground, five more than they had all of last season.

Washington (2-5) at Detroit (4-3)

The third straight game against the NFC East for the Lions, whose success seems to depend on Roy Williams. They lost to Green Bay and Dallas when the rookie wide receiver's sprained ankle kept him out, but he played a major role in their upset of the Giants two weeks ago.

The Redskins can validly argue they had the go-ahead touchdown stolen from them by the officials late in their 28-14 loss to the Packers ''You get very inconsistent stuff called, and that was an inconsistent call,'' Joe Gibbs said of the ticky-tacky motion penalty that reversed the TD.

Seattle (4-3) at San Francisco (1-6)

The Seahawks ended their three-game losing streak by beating Carolina, but this could be a tougher game than it appears if Tim Rattay's strained right forearm allows him to play. The 49ers lost in Chicago last week because Dorsey made one more mistake than Krenzel in a matchup of inexperienced quarterbacks.

The Seahawks were 2-6 on the road last season, but their second win came in the final week at Candlestick and clinched a playoff berth.

New Orleans (3-4) at San Diego (5-3)

The Chargers may be the biggest surprise in the league. Drew Brees has been sparkling and is making a lot of money for himself he's a free agent at the end of the year, and Philip Rivers will be next year's QB because of the money the Chargers are playing him.

The Saints have been inconsistent because they are allowing 27.3 points per game, second worst in the league.

Dallas (3-4) at Cincinnati (2-5)

The Cowboys got their running game going last week because Keyshawn Johnson was the only healthy wide receiver who had ever had an NFL reception. Tight end Jason Witten had nine receptions and rookie Patrick Crayton chipped in with a 30-yard catch in his pro debut against Detroit.

Dallas should be able to run again: the Bengals are giving up 155 yards rushing a game, worst in the NFL.

Oakland (2-6) at Carolina (1-6)

A long-standing feud: John Fox quit as the Raiders' defensive coordinator in the 1996 preseason. Al Davis has never forgotten and hard feelings remain.

Kerry Collins also returns to face the team with which he started and then left under less than favorable circumstances.

The Panthers can blame injuries for their slide from the Super Bowl to nowhere, but Fox has them playing hard. It's not really a surprise that Jake Delhomme is having a down year all the running backs are hurt, as is key receiver Steve Smith.

Arizona (2-5) at Miami (1-7)

Arizona is a bad team on the road, a mediocre one at home. Miami is bad, the low point coming when the previously decent defense fell apart against the Jets last Monday night.

Wayne Huizenga, the owner, has said Dave Wannstedt's job is safe this season. But Wannstedt is likely to be gone as soon as it ends.

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