|Steelers eager for chance at handing Patriots first defeat|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 06 December 2007 10:02|
Traveling to Foxborough to play the unbeaten Patriots?
Doesn't faze them.
``This isn't Appalachian State against Michigan,'' coach Mike Tomlin said this week.
The 9-3 Steelers, who could clinch the AFC North if they win and Cleveland loses at the Jets, would seem the logical team to end New England's streak after 12 games.
In their last two games, the Patriots have struggled to three-point wins over Philadelphia and Baltimore, two sub-.500 teams. They allowed 166 yards rushing in the 27-24 win over the Ravens and, in Pittsburgh, they face a team that always runs first; Pittsburgh ranks third in NFL rushing.
The result? According to Bill Belichick, just what you'd expect from a team that's played 12 games under increasing scrutiny and pressure.
``We're a tired team right now,'' the Patriots coach said during a television interview Tuesday. Then he gave his players Wednesday off, contrary to the television ``experts'' who predicted he would drive his players harder than ever this week.
The Patriots are close to a very important goal: a win and a loss by Indianapolis in Baltimore will give them home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. That's just about a certainty anyway because New England's win in Indy last month essentially gives it a three-game lead in that race.
The Steelers are chasing the Colts for a first-round bye. That may be tough to attain because three of their last four games are on the road.
Still, they don't seem awed by New England in what's an interesting contrast. The Patriots have scored the most points in the NFL, the Steelers have allowed the fewest. And three years ago, they stopped New England's record 21-game winning streak and 18-game regular-season streak by winning 34-20 in Pittsburgh.
Second-year safety Anthony Smith, under prodding from media, ``guaranteed'' victory, something Tomlin surely found both silly and aggravating.
Pittsburgh's veterans found it amusing.
``He better keep his mouth shut,'' linebacker James Farrior said with a laugh. ``Oh well, I guess we've got to go deal with that.''
The weekend started with Chicago at Washington on Thursday night.
With four weeks left, seven other teams can clinch playoff berths this week, an unusually high number on the brink this early.
All four NFC divisions can be clinched if the leaders win:
Dallas takes the East with a win at Detroit or a loss by the New York Giants in Philadelphia.
Green Bay clinches the North with a win at home over Oakland or a loss by Detroit.
Tampa Bay wins the South with a victory at Houston or losses by Carolina at Jacksonville and New Orleans on Monday night at Atlanta. And Seattle can win the West by beating Arizona at home.
The Giants can clinch a wild-card spot if they win and several other teams lose.
In the AFC, Indianapolis can clinch the South with a win Sunday night at Baltimore, combined with losses by Jacksonville and Tennessee. The Colts also can grab a playoff spot with a win and any number of scenarios. San Diego can take the West if it wins at Tennessee and Denver loses at home to Kansas City.
In other games Sunday, Miami is at Buffalo, St. Louis at Cincinnati and Minnesota at San Francisco.
Dallas (11-1) at Detroit (6-6)
Detroit, which technically would be the NFC's second wild-card team if the season ended now, is really a playoff long shot with a schedule that includes the Cowboys, Chargers and Packers. The Lions have lost four straight after a 6-2 start.
Dallas' win over the Packers gives it a two-game lead (with tiebreaker) over Green Bay for home-field advantage in the NFC. It means Wade Phillips will be able to rest regulars late in the schedule.
``I am more excited about what is going to happen, without a doubt,'' owner Jerry Jones said. ``Consequently, I am apprehensive about what can happen.''
Indianapolis (10-2) at Baltimore (4-8) (Sunday night)
With a two-game lead plus a tiebreaker over Jacksonville in its division, the major goal for the Colts is a first-round bye. Tony Dungy hinted last week he will rest players down the stretch, which probably means Marvin Harrison, who has missed seven of eight games with a knee injury, won't be back until the playoffs.
The Ravens, who were 13-3 last season then lost in the playoffs 15-6 to Indy, showed against the Patriots they still can be tough. The question is motivation for another prime-time game after a disappointing loss they feel was taken from them by the officials.
Arizona (6-6) at Seattle (8-4)
The Cardinals, who beat the Seahawks at home, might have a shot at the NFC West title if they win here. But their twin receiving threats are banged up: Larry Fitzgerald missed last week's game with a groin injury and Anquan Boldin hurt his toe during the 27-21 win over Cleveland.
The Seahawks have won four straight and got Shaun Alexander back for Philadelphia last week, although Maurice Morris had the key run, a 45-yard TD scamper. Lofa Tatupu had three interceptions in the 28-24 victory.
San Diego (7-5) at Tennessee (7-5)
The Haynesworth factor seems to be the major difference for the Titans. With DT Albert Haynesworth out, Tennessee lost three straight and had problems stopping the run. He was back last week in a 28-20 win over Houston that kept his team in serious wild-card contention.
The Chargers have lost three more games than all of last season, but are a game away from winning the AFC West because the other three teams are bad. Norv Turner has finally figured out that the best way to win is to give the ball to LaDainian Tomlinson, who had 177 yards rushing in last week's 24-10 win over Kansas City.
Oakland (4-8) at Green Bay (10-2)
Brett Favre is expected to make his 250th consecutive start despite bruising his right elbow and separating his left shoulder in Dallas last Thursday. No surprise: Favre has the streak because he's played hurt so often.
In addition to clinching the NFC North with a win, Green Bay is close to a first-round bye, leading Seattle and Tampa Bay by two games with four left.
The Raiders have won two straight, doubling their win total from last season. QB JaMarcus Russell, the first pick in the draft, finally got to play last week, going 4-of-7 for 56 yards. He could get more action as the season winds down.
New York Giants (8-4) at Philadelphia (5-7)
The Giants, who lead the NFC wild-card race by two games, might make the playoffs if they lose all four remaining games. Say what you will about Eli Manning, but the two fourth-quarter touchdown drives he engineered in Chicago last week provided the eighth comeback win of his 51-start career, and his fourth in the final two minutes.
Donovan McNabb, sacked 12 times by the Giants in the first meeting, a 16-3 New York win, will be back at QB for the Eagles after missing two games with ankle and thumb injuries. More important may be that William Thomas is at left tackle - his sub, Winston Justice, allowed six sacks to Osi Umenyiora in the first game.
Miami (0-12) at Buffalo (6-6)
The Dolphins were routed 40-13 by the Jets last week in a game they were favored to win. Now they have the Bills, Ravens, Patriots and Bengals left in a run toward the first winless season since the expansion Buccaneers were 0-14 in 1976.
The Bills remain alive for a playoff spot, a remarkable achievement for a team that had low expectations to start and has nine players on injured reserve. That includes tight end Kevin Everett, whose serious injury in the season opener provided additional travail.
Tampa Bay (8-4) at Houston (5-7)
The Bucs got a lot of bad breaks last season and a lot of good ones this year. One was the ill-conceived double reverse by the Saints last week. It was fumbled by New Orleans and recovered by the Bucs, who then drove for the TD that effectively wrapped up the NFC South.
Both starting quarterbacks are banged up. Tampa Bay's Jeff Garcia missed last week's game with a back bruise and Luke McCown started. Houston's Matt Schaub dislocated his left shoulder in Tennessee last week and Sage Rosenfels finished.
Minnesota (6-6) at San Francisco (3-9)
The Vikings have become a favorite for the NFC's second wild-card spot by winning their last three games, two without rookie star Adrian Peterson, who returned to rush for 116 yards on just 15 carries in their 42-10 rout of Detroit.
``I just think we're focusing a lot more,'' says Chester Taylor, who shares running back duties with Peterson. ``We're playing four quarters and just not stepping on our own feet and making mistakes that we used to make in the beginning of the season.''
New Orleans (5-7) at Atlanta (3-9) (Monday night)
One guarantee: This game will not get the ratings of last Monday night's Patriots-Ravens meeting. And even if it has the drama of that one, will anyone care?
The Saints are having trouble with their highest-profile player. Reggie Bush was involved in that aborted reverse last week, then walked off the field before the game ended, an old Randy Moss stunt. ``Reggie is a great talent. Reggie is one of the best athletes I have ever seen, but that only gets you so far,'' quarterback Drew Brees said.
Cleveland (7-5) at New York Jets (3-9)
The Browns need this badly to enhance their wild-card chances against a team that's won two of its last three after starting 1-8.
Interesting note: Cleveland Browns lost last week in Arizona when Kellen Winslow was ruled out of bounds on what would have been the winning TD pass on the game's last play. It appeared he was forced out, but officials declined to call it. Last season, there was no force-out called on Chris Baker's catch on the final play of Cleveland's 20-14 win over New York, although Baker appeared to be pushed.
Carolina (5-7) at Jacksonville (8-4)
Mark the Panthers down as one of the NFL's bigger disappointments, although they are still in marginal contention for a wild-card berth. One obvious problem: Jake Delhomme's injury that left the quarterbacking in the hands of 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde and David Carr.
The Jaguars were impressive in a 28-25 loss in Indianapolis last week, outrushing the Colts 168-63. They are in good shape for what should be the AFC's first wild-card spot.
Kansas City (4-8) at Denver (5-7)
Two disappointments, especially the Broncos, who lost in Oakland last week. They continue to have problems with run defense and the answer isn't picking up aging defensive linemen: Sam Adams was cut this week and Simeon Rice was let go earlier in the season.
The Chiefs' problems are due to injuries, especially RB Larry Johnson's foot problems. Their best player has been defensive end Jared Allen, who leads the NFL with 11 1/2 sacks despite being suspended for two games.
St. Louis (3-9) at Cincinnati (4-8)
Two more disappointments, the Bengals more so because they haven't had the injury problems the Rams have experienced. St. Louis has won three of four after its 0-8 start and quarterback Marc Bulger could be back after sitting out two games with a concussion.
Some Bengals think teammates are more concerned about stats than wins. ``I think some of our problem is we don't always have a team attitude,'' defensive end Justin Smith said. ``I think the best teams really don't care about any of that. They care about winning. And we're not there yet.''