Vikes-Steelers presents intriguing matchup; more to watch in Week 7

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I still like that storyline a lot, but the events of the past few days have caused me to look at the other side of the game too. After Joe Flacco torched the Vikings last Sunday for 196 yards and three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, and after Minnesota's defense gave Baltimore 448 yards and 31 points ... and now, with the Vikings best secondary player, cornerback Antoine Winfield, doubtful with a sprained foot (he was still not practicing Thursday, and in a walking boot), all of a sudden it's the Minnesota defense that may have the tougher task Sunday at Heinz Field.

Ben Roethlisberger has always been a complementary player in the Pittsburgh offense, content with handing off to a back in one of the league's best running games, and throwing safe routes to keep the chains moving. Maybe he -- and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians -- got emboldened when Roethlisberger took the Steelers 87 yards in two minutes to win the Super Bowl last February. Whatever, they've come out smoking this year, and Roethlisberger's on pace to smash his single-season pass-yardage mark by 1,500 yards this year. He leads the NFL with 1,887 passing yards. His top three wideouts -- Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and surprising rookie Mike Wallace -- are averaging between 14 and 17 yards per catch.

And they'll be catching the Vikings at the right time. It's likely that struggling journeyman Karl Paymah will replace Winfield, with lightly tested Benny Sapp at nickel and rookie Asher Allen the fourth corner. Roethlisberger's got to be thinking if his linemen, particularly left tackle Max Starks, can hold off Jared Allen, he'll have time to make some big plays against that secondary.

LeBeau against Favre is a little too good to ignore. LeBeau, 71, the 51-year NFL player, assistant, head coach, coordinator. Favre, 40, the most veteran NFL starting player at any position. Both seem too old for this. Both also seem to be near the peak of their games. LeBeau's coming off orchestrating one of the great defensive seasons ever by a team. Favre's mostly been playing it safe with the Vikings, but lately has come out of his cocoon to win games with deep balls. It's very early, obviously, but Favre has never completed 70 percent of his throws in a season, as he's doing now, and his 12-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio is rare for him.

"They compare very favorably with all the great offenses I've seen over the years,'' LeBeau said after practice Thursday. "Arguably, they've got the best running back in football, and the most dangerous one. Brett's certainly the most experienced quarterback, and he's playing so well. He can play any way he's ever played -- fast, dictating the tempo, or regular. And his hard count at the line is so good.

"Their lowest point total is 27 six weeks in, so that tells us a lot about their offensive consistency. What I've seen on tape in a team that can score explosively, or they can button it up and pound you with two backs in the running game.''

The added threat is first-round pick Percy Harvin, one of the most dangerous players in the game already. The Vikings have been using him in some bubble screens, or in what the Steelers call an "Alley Screen'' -- throwing to Harvin wide, after the rush is on Favre, and Harvin then running back across the grain and using his quickness to make people miss.

The Steelers aren't as dominant as they were on defense a year ago. That's due to a couple of things. One: injuries. They missed freelancing safety Troy Polamalu for four games with a sprained knee; he returned last week but tweaked the knee again, and even if he plays Sunday, he likely won't be 100 percent. His backup, Tyrone Carter, is more a stationary player in the back, not the instinctive roamer Polamalu is. And underrated end Aaron Smith is gone for the year with a torn rotator cuff. A huge loss. "He never gets blocked,'' LeBeau said. Two: the slow start of LaMarr Woodley, who has two sacks in six games. Last year, he formed a potent 1-2 pass-rush punch with James Harrison. The Steelers need him to emerge as that force again, starting with some major Favre harassment Sunday.

"Isn't this the kind of game where you hope the offense will play clockball?'' I said to LeBeau. "Where Mike Tomlin tells the offense, 'Stay in bounds, run the clock, limit Minnesota's possessions?' ''

He laughed. "As a defensive coordinator, I think that ought to be the game plan every week.''

I like the Steelers, narrowly, because I think Roethlisberger can make more plays against the Vikings secondary than Favre will make. Whatever happens, it's this weekend's must-see game.

Mark Sanchez, QB, New York Jets

The Sanchize needs to turn into The Player. Sanchez goes to Oakland on Sunday with a trimmed-down game plan and the first real questions about whether he'll make it through the season as a 16-game starter. First three games: 59 percent passing, four touchdowns, two picks. Last three games: 45 percent passing, one touchdown, eight picks. Sanchez is certainly still Rex Ryan's guy, but if he struggles in the Black Hole, I wouldn't be surprised to see Kellen Clemens finish the game.

1. London calling, in many ways. The league seems bound to play two games a year in London by next year, with as many four on the continent by 2012 and a team there by 2020. Make no mistake about it: These 32 owners want to grow the league and make it a world-wide entity. Just wanted to throw this in: When I was in England in May, I asked 10 Brits if they'd heard of Tom Brady. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. And no.

2. San Diego roiling. Good thing Chargers are on the road this week, and at Kansas City. Good thing Oakland rolls into Qualcomm next week. Without some success in the next eight quarters, Norv Turner and Shawne Merriman are going to feel the heat Dan Snyder's feeling in D.C. these days.

3. The debut of Michael Crabtree. The rookie holdout hasn't exactly been spoon fed by 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye. "Whether he starts or not,'' Raye said Thursday, "I think we will try to give him as much as his appetite will allow.'' When he signed, Crabtree seemed destined for the third-receiver role in the slot. Now? He might push Josh Morgan for more playing time alongside Isaac Bruce.

4. Something, anything, new from the Washington offense. Get ready for 612 camera shots of Sherm Lewis puzzling over plays Monday night. Now that Jim Zorn's in for the rest of the year (so Vinny Cerrato says), Lewis is going to be more famous than he ever was when he was dying to be an NFL head coach.

5. The ascending career of Chad Henne. Two starts, two wins, 69 points produced. He had a bye week to puzzle over the odd-man rushes he'll see from the Saints on Sunday. This might be a pretty good game.

6. How the former mentor plays against the pupil.Kurt Warner was the caretaker in the midst of his five-year career donut-hole when Eli Manning was picked to be the savior of the Giants. Now Warner's just as big a threat in the Sunday night game to put up 40 as is Eli. And they both might.

7. Peyton continuing his MVP march. Manning's never thrown a touchdown at St. Louis (he lost 48-17 there in the midst of a 5-11 season in 2001). My prediction is he will Sunday. In the first eight minutes.

8. The Jets trying to save their season. Saviors like Rex Ryan can't save much when their team loses four in a row. A loss at Oakland would do that, and, barring a ridiculous outcome in London, would put the Jets two games down to New England with nine to play in the AFC East ... and on the outside of a wild card race that will be very crowded at Christmas time.

9. The impact of the Swine Flu, and the regular old flu. Twelve Browns missed practice Wednesday with some flu symptoms, and the Colts were getting hit with it late in the week too, so much so that players were being kept from front-office staffers in Indy. It's coming, people.

10. Whether the Cowboys can make the NFC East a three-team race. Losing at home to Atlanta's not the right way to challenge the Giants and Eagles for division supremacy, particularly as a well-rested team coming off the bye. Dallas needs this game.