The Baltimore-Pittsburgh game is important for both teams, but
it's crucial for the Ravens. At 10-2 the Steelers are one of the
NFL's elite clubs. If the playoffs started tomorrow, they would
be the AFC's No. 1 seed. Even if they lose to 8-4 Baltimore,
they will be a game up on the Ravens with Detroit (at home),
Cincinnati and Cleveland (at home) as the final trio on their
Let's face it: It's not exactly nail-biting time for Pittsburgh.
Sure, the Steelers want to beat Baltimore to keep the home court
advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, but that's not the huge
motivator many people assume it to be.
A loss would drop the Ravens to 8-5, with a tough game coming up
against the Buccaneers in Tampa. They could find themselves in
the company of the Jets and the Patriots in the murky nether
regions of the playoffs--among the low-seeded wild card teams.
Not really a disaster (Baltimore was a road warrior in two out
of three AFC playoff games last season and still won it all),
but kind of undignified: a champion in an undercard bout.
You realize, of course, that all this is merely sportswriter
talk, and what's foremost in the Steelers' minds is the way they
shoved the Ravens around in their first meeting, only to lose
the game on four missed field goals. Pittsburgh knows it can
move the ball on Baltimore. Lots of teams have this year. The
Steelers are just a bit nervous about what happens when they get
into the red zone. In that choked-off area, their offense, which
has achieved a nice run-pass balance, fails to operate. Then
fingers are crossed all around for the three-pointer.
Pittsburgh held the Ravens, minus Elvis Grbac, to 183 total
yards last time, Baltimore's lowest output of the season. The
Steelers' blitz package wreaked its usual havoc, but recently it
has been kept in check, failing to get a sack in the last two
games--against the Vikings, with a sore-kneed Daunte Culpepper
and an untested Todd Bouman at quarterback, and against the
Jets, with 38-year-old Vinny Testaverde. Still, I get the
feeling that Pittsburgh was saving the exotica for the big one
this Sunday and that the Ravens will face a lot of stuff they
haven't seen on tape. The game's in Baltimore, but the pick here
is Pittsburgh, which is out for revenge.
The Vikings can't win on the road. The Lions can't win at all. I
am casting my vote for the team that refuses to lose its will to
win. Detroit gets its first victory of the season.
Arizona, which had generated a flicker of excitement before
Washington extinguished it on Sunday, visits the Giants, who
really did play in the Super Bowl last season, honest. A
Cardinals upset wouldn't surprise me here, but I have a hunch
that the Giants have one decent effort left, so I'm going with
Denver, which still has playoff hopes, visits Kansas City, which
is playoff hopeless. Don't ask me why I like the Chiefs in this
one. Maybe because the Broncos still haven't straightened out
their offense, and Arrowhead isn't usually a friendly place for
them. Philadelphia has already been humbled by the Redskins, but
I don't think that will happen again. Besides, these teams have
split their series for each of the last five years. Here's one
shaky vote for the Eagles.
The Rams, whose first loss of the year was to New Orleans, visit
the Superdome on Monday night and even the score. Chicago beat
Tampa Bay in November by unveiling a secret weapon, the deep
pass. Now the secret's out, so I like the Buccaneers in an
upset. I'll take Seattle at home to bounce back and hang one on
the Cowboys. I always seem to pick against the Packers when they
play an AFC team on the road, and I know that if I change now,
I'm going to blow it, so Tennessee's my choice. Finally, the
49ers, whose offense was thoroughly humiliated by St. Louis last
week, take out their frustrations on Miami.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Duce Staley (22) and the Eagles will even the score with the Redskins.