For most of this season, the oddsmakers couldn't make the spread on New England games large enough to cover everyone who assumed the Patriots would run up the score.
After two straight 3-point victories, the odds are back down, at least relatively. Following a couple of 20-plus spreads, the Patriots are favored by ``just'' 13 points when Pittsburgh comes to Foxborough Sunday.
The Steelers, who lead the AFC North at 9-3, are clearly the best team the Patriots have played since coming back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat Indianapolis on Nov. 4. New England could only beat Philadelphia (5-7) 31-28 at home and its 27-24 win in Baltimore handed the Ravens their sixth straight loss.
That the Patriots are no longer dominant shouldn't be a surprise.
Every team goes through a down period in a league where parity is legislated. Still, they are almost at one of their major goals: home-field advantage in the AFC. Pittsburgh, which is two games and a tiebreaker ahead of Cleveland in its division, is a game behind Indianapolis for a first-round playoff bye.
The last two games have demonstrated the Patriots' efficient offense is vulnerable to hard hitting and to bad weather. High winds in Baltimore certainly limited Tom Brady's efficiency.
So the home field might not mean as much, especially against the Steelers, who run a lot more than the Patriots these days.
There's also the fact that in 2004, the Steelers stopped New England's record 21-game winning streak and 18-game regular season streak by winning 34-20 in Pittsburgh.
``It's all about being physical with those guys,'' Steelers safety Tyrone Carter says. ``Philly was hitting them in the mouth. You see they got 'gator arms' at the end as well, so we've got to do the same thing.''
On the other hand, all three of Pittsburgh's losses are on the road: to Arizona, Denver and the Jets.
Given two weeks of problems, this is a week when Bill Belichick will hammer the Patriots' swagger back into them.
PATRIOTS, 30-13.

Chicago (plus 3) at Washington (Thursday night)
Two 5-7 teams that should be better. This time Joe Gibbs gets things right.
REDSKINS, 19-13

Dallas (minus 10 1/2) at Detroit
Are the Lions heading for 6-10?
COWBOYS, 42-7

Indianapolis (plus 9 1/2) at Baltimore
If the Ravens play defense like they did Monday night ...
COLTS, 20-16

New Orleans (minus 4 1/2) at Atlanta (Monday night)
Shouldn't there be a line on the TV ratings, which will probably be about half of Patriots-Ravens for this one?
SAINTS, 27-20

San Diego (pick 'em) at Tennessee
When Albert Haynesworth plays, the Titans win.
TITANS, 19-17

Arizona (plus 7) at Seattle
Last shot at the NFC West title for the Cardinals, who are hurting at wideout, their strongest position.
SEAHAWKS, 30-20

New York Giants (plus 3) at Philadelphia
It's hard to sweep a division rival even though the Giants had 12 sacks on McNabb the first time.
EAGLES, 15-13

Minnesota (minus 9) at San Francisco
The Vikings may be due for an off week, but not here against a team that can't stop the run.
VIKINGS, 24-10

Oakland (plus 10 1/2) at Green Bay
Two straight wins is enough for Lane Kiffin's lads.
PACKERS 30-9

Carolina (plus 10 1/2) at Jacksonville
Jacksonville was impressive in loss to Indy.
JAGUARS, 24-3

Tampa Bay (off) at Houston
Off because of Matt Schaub's health.
BUCS, 24-20

Miami (plus 7) at Buffalo
The Dolphins probably blew their last chance at a win.
BILLS, 19-2

Cleveland (minus 3 1/2) at New York Jets
Are the Jets really getting better or was it just Miami?
BROWNS 42-41

Kansas City (plus 6) at Denver
Lost season for both teams.
BRONCOS, 22-20

St. Louis (off) at Cincinnati
Marc Bulger's health is the reason for the ``off.'' If he's off, so are the Rams.
BENGALS 27-20
---
LAST WEEK: 7-9 (spread); 9-7 (straight up)
SEASON: 92-92-8 (spread); 122-70 (straight up)

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