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NFL Week 9 storylines: Steelers-Giants meet in storm-ravaged New York

Ben Roethlisberger completed 18 of 28 passes for 316 yards with one TD and two interceptions when the Steelers last defeated the Giants, a 33-30 Pittsburgh win in 2004.  (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

There are, no doubt, plenty of other issues on the minds of New Jersey and New York residents right now beside the Giants' matchup with Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon. Yet, you can virtually guarantee fans will pick through downed trees and powerless city blocks to show up in droves at the Meadowlands for that contest.

From a football standpoint, the Steelers-Giants game is an important one -- the surging Steelers are just a game back of Baltimore in the AFC North; the 6-2 Giants would love to maintain the wiggle room they've generated in the NFC East.

It's also a matchup that we don't get to see that often, because of the NFL's rolling schedule. The last time these two teams got together was in 2008 (a Giants win) and the time before that in 2004 (a Steelers win).

That makes this -- barring a Super Bowl rematch -- the rubber game between Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning.

Of course, football has to take a backseat to everything else that's happened in New Jersey, New York and along the Eastern seaboard since Hurricane Sandy hit on Monday.

The Giants did not play at home for 19 days following the September 11 tragedy. The circumstances this week are entirely different, and yet the underlying story is the same: fans turning to sports for a much-needed distraction.

Fortunately for those fans, Sunday's game between the Steelers and Giants should be a dandy.

• The best game no one is talking about

If the playoffs started this weekend (I know, I know, we're not even that close to the postseason), the Dolphins and Colts would be involved. That's hard to believe, given the preseason expectations -- or lack thereof -- surrounding these two teams.

One of them will take another step toward joining the playoff party on Sunday, when Miami visits Indianapolis. For all the talk about Robert Griffin III this year, Ryan Tannehill and Andrew Luck are turning in terrific rookie seasons too. Tannehill may have to sit this one out after sustaining an injury in Week 8, but his team has a capable backup in Matt Moore.

Maybe Miami and Indianapolis can't maintain this early-season success, but the winner Sunday has a much better shot.

• Cam vs. RGIII

And speaking of RGIII ...

Despite the combined 4-11 records of the Panthers and Redskins, a lot of eyes will be on Washington, D.C., on Sunday as Griffin and Cam Newton go toe-to-toe.

Newton's sophomore season has been one to forget -- he's rarely looked like the dynamic QB that took the league by storm in 2011. Griffin, meanwhile, could be on his way to an Offensive Rookie of the Year award (Newton won last year), even as his teammates struggle to help him. The Redskins dropped nine passes last week in a loss to Pittsburgh.

While Carolina badly needs a win to stop the bleeding, the 3-5 Redskins still have a shot to get back in the playoff race.

Is Cleveland already better than we thought?

The Browns started the season 0-5 and appeared headed toward the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft. A funny thing happened over the past two weeks, though: Cleveland won a couple games.

Suddenly, despite a 2-6 record and last week's ugly 7-6 victory over San Diego, the Browns are set to play spoiler for the rest of the year. A big opportunity presents itself Sunday when AFC North-leading Baltimore ventures into Ohio. The Ravens are coming off a bye, but their last outing was an embarrassing 30-point loss in Houston.

It would have been hard to believe a month ago, but the Browns really have a shot to keep Baltimore from getting back on track.

Mario Williams makes his Houston return

Mario Williams was the face of the Texans' defense from his rookie season of 2006 until he suffered a season-ending injury in 2011. At the end of last year, Williams left Houston for Buffalo and $96 million.

Houston has thrived anyway, posting a 6-1 record with the help of one J.J. Watt. Buffalo has nosedived, at least defensively, where the Bills rank last in points allowed. Williams, who underwent wrist surgery during Buffalo's bye week, needs to get back to his old form for the Bills to turn that around. On the road against the Texans is not an easy place to start.

Can Chicago keep fighting off its NFC North rivals?

Chicago's win over Carolina last week wasn't exactly a Monet, but the Bears will take it. Mainly because the NFC North feels as if it's on the verge of tightening up.

While the Bears visit Tennessee in Week 9, the Packers host Arizona and Detroit visits Jacksonville -- both those games looking extremely winnable for Chicago's rivals. Minnesota, at 5-3, ventures into Seattle to take on a Seahawks team coming off back-to-back losses.

The 6-1 Bears still have four games to play within the division, plus matchups with Houston, San Francisco and Seattle. In other words, dropping one to Tennessee would not help their cause.

• Let's start sorting the playoff picture

Counting the Chargers, who moved to 4-4 on Thursday night, there are 13 teams in action in Week 9 who are at or within a game of .500. As you might expect, given that parity, the NFL's playoff races are a clustered mess right now.

Two more key matchups to keep an eye on: 4-3 Denver at 3-4 Cincinnati and 3-4 Tampa Bay at 3-4 Oakland. By the end of the weekend, there should at least be some semblance of playoff clarity -- at least in terms of which teams have the inside edge.

• The NFC East's other team in turmoil

Everyone's aware of the trouble facing Philadelphia right now, but the Cowboys are not far from being in the same predicament. Last week's loss was as fitting as it gets: Dallas trailed the Giants 23-0, rallied to take the lead, fell behind again and lost when Dez Bryant landed a hair out of bounds on what would have been a TD catch.

While the Cowboys continue to say they're committed to Tony Romo long-term, can the same faith be placed in the coaching staff? How about the inconsistent playmakers like Bryant and Miles Austin?

Dallas could reclaim a ton of positive momentum Sunday night by knocking off undefeated Atlanta. The Falcons, though, have their sights set on the top spot in the NFC.

• The Michael Vick saga hits New Orleans

Talk about a game that has lost some of its luster ...

Before the season started, Week 9's Monday nighter between Philadelphia and New Orleans stood out as one of the better games on the schedule. Now, the Eagles are 3-4 with an embattled coach and quarterback, and the Saints are 2-5 and barely breathing in the playoff race.

There were rumblings this week that Andy Reid was considering a switch at QB, from Vick to rookie Nick Foles. Reid denied those rumors and stood behind Vick. If Reid wants to keep his job beyond 2012, though, how much longer can he afford to do that?

Vick may put up some hefty numbers Monday, with New Orleans' sieve-like defense awaiting. That still might not be enough to get past the Saints, especially given how porous Philadelphia's own D was last week.

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