You get the feeling the Steelers will go 15--1 this season, which would be better than any of the Chuck Noll--coached Super Bowl teams of the '70s fared. But if you're looking for ways they could lose, here are a few possibilities. They could lose because key people get hurt. They could lose their finale because, if they've wrapped up home field advantage for the AFC playoffs, they might rest people and play their junior varsity.
I thought Pittsburgh would lose on Sunday because it was facing a hungrier team in the Jaguars, but the Steelers looked plenty hungry themselves. Lately it's been fashionable to say that perhaps it was time for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to come down to earth, to hit the rookie wall, to show his mortality in a pressure-filled affair. He didn't look very nervous leading his team down the field for the game-winning field goal on Sunday, did he?
The schedule says that 15--1 is a distinct possibility. This week Pittsburgh plays at home against the Jets, one of the five AFC aristocrats with a record of 9--3 or better. But after that there's only one winning team on the Steelers' card--the Ravens, in another game at Heinz Field, on Dec. 26.
So let's look at the Jets' chances of springing what would be a major upset. I could see it if the game turned into a defensive struggle. New York has an active, speedy defense with the ability to apply heat to the passer with the front four alone (although the rush will suffer without end John Abraham, who sprained a ligament in his right knee on Sunday and will not play). The Jets have muscle inside and an instinctive, run-stopping middle linebacker in Jonathan Vilma, and their secondary has been very sound. New York has given up a total of 17 points in its last three games.
Moving the ball on Pittsburgh's top-ranked defense will be a tougher assignment for the Jets. Jacksonville kept pounding away at the Steelers and finally got something going on the ground in the fourth quarter. Then, when the Jaguars picked up the Pittsburgh blitzes, they found all sorts of riches downfield, including receivers running free through busted zones. But first the blitzes must be controlled. I'm not sure the Jets are patient enough to do all that.
The ideal quarterback to beat the Steelers would be a massive guy, like the Jaguars' 245-pound Byron Leftwich, who could shrug off some of the blows. New York's Chad Pennington is a thinker, a clever craftsman, getting to his hot reads and finding the right receiver, but he's not one of those indestructible types. My pick: The Jets hang in and keep it close, but the Steelers prevail in a low-scoring game.
After last week I'm gun-shy about picking upsets, so you won't find any exotic selections this time. I think the Panthers are the best of the NFC teams with a losing record, and they'll prove it by beating St. Louis. Baltimore's defense was embarrassed by the Bengals, so poor Eli Manning will feel the backlash as the Ravens hang another one on the Giants.
The Colts romp at Houston, and I'm only picking this game because it has some divisional importance. Dallas--New Orleans is an interesting one: Do the Saints have one good effort left in them for their coach, or are they mailing it in? I'll go the postal route and take the Cowboys. The Vikings, another team trying to rebound from a frightful performance, will have enough to get by Seattle.
The most tempting upset would be Tampa Bay over San Diego, with both teams suffering letdowns after emotional victories. Here's what swings it, though. The Bucs are 1--5 on the road, the Chargers are 5--1 at home. The game is in San Diego, which is my pick. Finally, the Monday-nighter: The Titans beat the Chiefs in the Disappointment Bowl. --Paul Zimmerman
Last week: 5--3 Season: 68--43