They're young and spirited. They play with a fire that's lit by
their defenses, which gives their games a frantic tone. They've
been two of the bigger success stories of 2001, but each is
coming off a freak loss. Pittsburgh-Cleveland is a rivalry with a
long and colorful history, but in recent years the Steelers have
been treading water and the Browns have been little more than a
curious creation of expansion. Now they're showing muscle again,
and their meeting should be a delight for those who prefer
whack-'em football.

Here's what impressed me about the Browns as they watched a 21-7
lead over the Bears go poof in the last 32 seconds on Sunday: By
the end of regulation their defense had been on the field for 83
snaps and should have been exhausted--but it was still flying to
the ball, still coming hard off the line. The defense held for
three downs on the first series of overtime, forced a punt and,
well, you know the rest.

Cleveland's offense doesn't exactly thrill you, but what the
heck, a superior defense can carry a team right through the Super
Bowl. Look at the Ravens last season. End Courtney Brown picked
up three sacks against the Bears, who had given up only two all
year. Jamir Miller, the veteran linebacker who drops into a rush
position on passing downs, is playing close to the best football
of his eight-year career. Rookie coach Butch Davis has created a
well-meshed defense.

The Steelers? We know all about their exotic blitzing packages,
which can unhinge any quarterback, but what's interesting is that
their offense has become truly multidimensional now that Kordell
Stewart has smoothed out his game and become a precise, confident
quarterback. Jerome Bettis gets the publicity, but teams that
stack the line to stop him will learn, as the Ravens and the
Titans did, that Pittsburgh won't hesitate to get off the Bus
early and take to the air.

The Steelers outplayed the Ravens on Sunday, but their drives all
seemed to end the same way, with a missed field goal. This
happened four times, and the last one cost them a game they
should have won. Now they face last weekend's partner in hard
luck, the Browns.

I like Pittsburgh because I think Stewart, Bettis & Co. can do
more to Cleveland's defense than the Browns' attack can do to the
Steelers' D. Nothing will come easy, though.

For the second consecutive week the Bears came from two
touchdowns behind in the fourth quarter and got a defensive
touchdown in overtime. Now they're at home against a Packers
squad whose defense is playing so well that it can win even when
Brett Favre is having a subpar day, as he did against the
Buccaneers on Sunday. Sorry, but I can't see a third miracle
finish in a row for Chicago. Green Bay is the pick on overall

The Colts are entering the scary part of their schedule. In their
final nine games only one opponent has a losing record. On Sunday
they face Miami, which ran for 258 yards against them in the
wild-card playoff game last season. The Dolphins' ground game,
however, has fallen off lately, so I'll cast a vote for Indy.
Tennessee has found a terrifying object to fill the void at
fullback created by the off-season departure of Lorenzo
Neal--284-pound Wes Ours, who was snatched off the waiver wire
after being released by the Colts. It will be a revenge game
against the Ravens on Monday night, and I like Tennessee as my
upset special.

The Saints seem to play up to the level of their competition,
which means that they will give San Francisco a run for it. But
quarterback Jeff Garcia is operating at close to an All-Pro
level, and I'll go with the Niners.

Atlanta will create more problems for Dallas's fourth-string
quarterback, Ryan Leaf, than the Cowboys will for the Falcons'
second-stringer, Michael Vick. The Falcons will win it. Curtis
Martin will run for big yardage in a Jets victory over the
Chiefs. The Eagles will get by the Vikings, who are 0-3 outside
the Metrodome; the Raiders will make it 2 for 2 over the
Seahawks; and the Giants will get their act somewhat together
and beat Arizona in the desert.

--Paul Zimmerman

COLOR PHOTO: FRED VUICH His game on the rise, Stewart will lead Pittsburgh over Cleveland.
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