Thursday January 20th, 2005

PITTSBURGH -- Strange as it sounds for a squad coming off consecutive wins over the NFL's last two unbeaten teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers just finished the easy part. Now things will get really tricky.

Humbling the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles in back-to-back weeks was a historic accomplishment, worthy of all the hype and acclaim the feat will bring. But with the twin deeds done and the giants slain, there's finally no one left standing in front the Steelers to block our view. All eyes are now on Pittsburgh, which in a flash just went from challenger to presumptive favorite as the 2004 NFL schedule reaches midseason.

Now we get to find out how the Steelers fare with a giant bull's-eye painted on their backs. Now it's Pittsburgh's turn to wear the target and let the rest of the league take its best shot. No matter what the calendar says, hunting season officially opened Sunday in this part of western Pennsylvania.

"Toward the end of the game today, I said we've been hunting these teams, trying to get respect,'' said Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, whose 33-carry, 149-yard rushing performance highlighted Pittsburgh's 27-3 pounding of Philadelphia. "And now maybe it's a situation where we're going to be hunted. We've got to understand the situation and stay as hungry and keep trying to prove that we're a good football team.''

By improving to 7-1 and winning their sixth in a row, the Steelers proved everything they could have hoped to against the Eagles. Not only did the league's final perfect record disappear on a picturesque fall afternoon at Heinz Field, but the Steelers' few remaining doubters vanished as well.

Pittsburgh is not only the best team in the NFL as November starts to unfold, they're too far ahead to even spark a decent debate. But don't take our word for it, just ask the Eagles and Patriots, the two teams that limped out of here on the short end of a combined 61-23 throttling the past couple Sundays. The Steelers are winning believers the old-fashioned way, 53 at a time, which happens to be precisely the size of an NFL roster.

"I have to give Pittsburgh a lot of credit. They beat us up in every phase of the game,'' said Eagles head coach Andy Reid. "Starting with the coaches, to the offense, to the defense, and then to our special teams. They were the better team today, in all phases.''

For the second week in a row, the Steelers put the lie to an opponent that seemed invincible. For the second week in a row, they forced us to realize that Ben Roethlisberger is the most accomplished rookie quarterback since Dan Marino. And for the second week in a row, Pittsburgh and its sledgehammer running game dramatically imposed its will on a proud adversary who had gotten used to doing exactly that to everyone else.

"I think both [undefeated] teams coming in here didn't give us much respect,'' said Steelers receiver Hines Ward, who scored Pittsburgh's first two touchdowns, on a 16-yard end-around, and a 20-yard reception. "We have a rookie quarterback, and people were saying we hadn't played anybody yet. But we're starting to peak. We're climbing the mountain.

"We're like the surprise. Nobody coming into this year thought we'd be where we are. But 7-1 says a lot.''

It's impossible to overstate how thoroughly the Steelers dominated the Eagles, who at 7-0 had only trailed for 15:54 of this season. In Sunday's first half alone, Philadelphia faced a deficit for much longer than that, as the Steelers marched methodically to touchdowns on their first three possessions -- building a 21-0 lead -- and never looked back.

The Eagles entered an NFL-best 28-7 on the road since the start of the 2000 season, with a club record-tying nine-game road winning streak. But the 24-point loss was Philadelphia's worst defeat away from home in exactly five years, since a 33-7 embarrassment at Carolina on Nov. 7, 1999, during Reid and quarterback Donovan McNabb's first season in town. For that matter, the Eagles haven't lost any game this badly since Nov. 21, 1999, when the Colts came into Veterans Stadium and beat Philadelphia 44-17.

And try to wrap your mind around these staggering numbers spawned by Sunday's blowout:

• After its third drive of the game, Pittsburgh led 21-0 and held a 17:46 to 2:43 advantage in time of possession, with a 15-0 cushion in first downs. The Steelers had rolled up 206 yards of offense at that point, while the Eagles had punted twice and amassed all of three yards.

• In its first seven games this season, Philadelphia averaged 374 yards of offense and 26 points per outing. But against Pittsburgh, the Eagles managed just 113 yards of offense and three points.

• The Steelers wound up with laughably large margins in first downs (25-7), third-down efficiency (8 of 15 for 53 percent, to 0 of 8 for 0 percent), rushing yardage (252-23), total yards (420-113), and possession time (41:49 to 18:11). Pittsburgh never punted and basically called off the dogs at the Eagles 7 with 2:48 remaining, taking a knee on four consecutive plays.

All in all, not a bad day at the office for a Steelers team that was missing its lead running back -- former Eagle Duce Staley was held out due to the hamstring injury he suffered on the last play of Friday's practice. Even though Bettis' forte this season had been 1-yard touchdown runs, he acquitted himself quite well, with those 149 rushing yards representing his most productive game since a 163-yard day against Cleveland in November 2001.

"This gives us a lot of confidence that [against] the better football teams in the NFL, we can go out and get it done and play our brand of football,'' said Bettis, 32, the league's sixth-leading all-time rusher. "This gives us an opportunity to show that Pittsburgh Steelers football can be played against anybody.

"It doesn't mean we're the best team in the world, because by any stretch of the imagination we can be beat. But now it's a matter of us keeping on doing what we're doing and trying to improve on it.''

Against the Eagles, there wasn't anything for Pittsburgh to improve upon. If the Steelers offense plays keep-away with the football like it did Sunday, limiting an opponent to just 18 minutes or so of clock time, it's going to make a very good Pittsburgh defense all but untouchable.

"Our best defense today was our offense,'' said Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher, whose Steelers are off to the franchise's best start since the 1978 team began 7-1 en route to its third of four Super Bowl titles in a six-year span. "That's a good football team [Philadelphia], and we're not that much better than them. But we got some momentum today and we rode it.''

The momentum swing in this game came on the Steelers' first drive. With Pittsburgh facing a fourth-and-1 from the Eagles 40, logic said Cowher would chose to punt, pin Philly deep and fire the first shot in the game-long battle for field position. But the way the Steelers' running game is producing yardage, you throw out the book and go for anything less than fourth-and-long. Pittsburgh out-gained New England 221-5 on the ground last week, giving it a ridiculous 473-28 rushing advantage the past two games.

Predictably, Bettis thundered for six yards and a first down to the Eagles 34, and the Steelers four plays later grabbed a lead they would never relinquish on Hines' 16-yard scoring reverse. The rest of it was basically just Roethlisberger and Co. padding their stats and building their already soaring confidence.

The Steelers reveled in the rarity of their second consecutive stunning victory on Sunday, and they deserved to. They're the first NFL team in history to post back-to-back victories over undefeated teams with at least six wins. But now the pressure really builds. Now they have to make sure their accomplishment leads to something bigger and more meaningful. Now the entire NFL world is aiming at them. Nobody more so than the once-beaten Patriots and Eagles.

"Where our record is, we recognize there's a responsibility that comes along with it,'' Cowher said. "We have to bring our A game every week. We're not in a reflecting mode right now. We have to still look ahead and keep the blinders on a little bit. We beat a couple good football teams, but in terms of the big picture, [we haven't accomplished anything yet].''

Not yet, but Pittsburgh is well on its way to where its wants to go if it manages to keep that perspective for the final eight weeks of the regular season. And I'm beginning to think it will. After all, the Steelers look like they can do whatever they want to these days.

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