THE GAME meant nothing to the AFC North-champion Pittsburgh Steelers and everything to the white-hot, playoff-hopeful Buffalo Bills. When they took the ball with a 26-17 lead early in the fourth quarter on Sunday in Buffalo, the Steelers had a reserve-laden lineup on the field. Yet with fourth-string running back Willie Parker smashing into the line time and again, Pittsburgh ran 8:53 off the clock on a 14-play drive that culminated in a 33yard field goal. Ball game. In the 25 years that the NFL has played a 16-game schedule, the Steelers became the fourth team to finish 15-1. They did it by imposing their iron will on opponents.
"It's who we are," said running back Jerome Bettis, who sat out the 29-24 win with a sprained ankle. "Is this the same team that beat the Eagles and the Patriots in the middle of the season, the same team that beat the Ravens last week? Yes, even with different players. The fact that we have an identity and consistency gives us an edge. If we don't win [the Super Bowl], I think it'll be a huge underachievement."
With one small if, the Steelers are the team to beat when the playoffs begin this weekend. Here are five intriguing questions about the postseason.
1 Are the Steelers healthy enough on offense to go all the way?
Probably, but this is the one if. Bettis, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (ribs) and wideouts Plaxico Burress (hamstring) and Hines Ward (hip flexor) sat out the Buffalo game as a precaution and will get another week to heal thanks to the first-round bye Pittsburgh earned for being one of the top two seeds in its conference. Roethlisberger seems fine; he threw with minimal pain last week. The key rehabs before the Steelers face the Chargers, Jets or Broncos next week: Burress and Bettis. Pittsburgh will need Burress to stretch the defense, but he may not be at top speed after missing six of the last seven games. More than Duce Staley, who has been slowed by a bad hamstring, Bettis has given the Steelers' ground game its punishing identity. "I'll be O.K.," said Bettis, who in his six starts rushed for 738 yards, "but I need this week."
2 Which team playing on wild-card weekend is the most dangerous?
It's tempting to say the Colts, but here's a vote for the Chargers, who open at home on Saturday against the Jets. San Diego ranked third in the league against the run (81.7 yards per game) and has a disruptive pass rush, which drove Peyton Manning nuts for three quarters in a Dec. 26 game before the Colts rallied to win in overtime. And what about the Chargers having to play in cold weather against the Steelers or the Patriots in the next round? Last month San Diego romped over Cleveland 21-0 in the snow.
3 Did Philadelphia rest its stars too much down the stretch?
When the Eagles, the top seed in the NFC, play on Jan. 15 or 16, they will be coming off a stretch of having not played well for more than 40 days, since a 47-17 win over the Packers on Dec. 5 that clinched a playoff berth. Philly squeezed out wins over the Redskins and the Cowboys, then got throttled by the Rams and the Bengals while sitting many starters. After wide receiver Terrell Owens broke his leg against Dallas, the Eagles made sure Donovan McNabb stayed healthy by playing him only one series in the last two games. But will the Pro Bowl quarterback be sharp for the divisional-round game? "We've practiced together, we played a lot of games together, we went through two-a-days together," running back Brian Westbrook, who didn't even dress for the last two games, said on Sunday after the 38-10 loss to Cincinnati. "We won't have any problem turning it on when it's time to go."
4 Who will be the next Tom Brady, a good player made great by Super Bowl success?
Here are three candidates: Westbrook, who by leading the Eagles to a title could emerge as a Marshall Faulk--caliber all-purpose back; Corey Dillon, whose nine 100-yard rushing games this year gave the Patriots a dimension they sorely lacked; and my pick, Roethlisberger. He's a rookie, he's cool, he's small town (Findlay, Ohio) and he's already got at least two sandwiches named after him. Most important at this time of year, he's a clutch player. If the Steelers need a 65-yard drive with two minutes left, Roethlisberger doesn't flinch. He's also 13-0 as a starter.
5 Will the NFC champion, whoever it is, even stand a chance in Super Bowl XXXIX?
The Super Bowl might be the ultimate trap game for the AFC champion. It happened to the Bills in January 1991; they were huge favorites against the Giants, who had kicked five field goals to beat the 49ers for the NFC crown. New York won the big game 20-19. As long as Westbrook and McNabb stay healthy, the Eagles will be a threat to any opponent, TO or no TO. In the NFC, only the Falcons (an inconsistent offensive team that will have to be at its best to beat Philadelphia on the road) should challenge the Eagles. And although the AFC was clearly the superior conference this year--it was a record 44-20 in interconference play--Philadelphia and Atlanta were a combined 5-3 against AFC foes.
My Super Bowl pick: Steelers 31, Eagles 20. A team with a great running game and a defense that has answered every challenge doesn't get caught in a trap. --Peter King