- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Since the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions in 2002, the Steelers have withstood most challenges in the AFC North.
In 2005, a young, healthy Carson Palmer led the Cincinnati Bengals to the regular-season division title, but the Steelers beat them in the first week of the playoffs. Even worse, Palmer suffered a major knee injury in that game, and the Bengals haven't been the same since. Last year, the Browns took at run at the Steelers with a 10-6 season. Cleveland fell short, has struggled mightily this season and is expected to try to hire former Steelers coach Bill Cowher.
When the Ravens come knocking on the Steelers' door, however, Pittsburgh (10-3) stands at attention. Like the Steelers, the Ravens offer an organizational toughness. Their team is built around a great defense. Their preference is to pound the football on the ground. On Sunday, the Ravens can make their threat even more real if they can beat the Steelers.
The Sept. 29 matchup between the Steelers and the Ravens (9-4) captured the reality of the Ravens' threat this year. First-year coach John Harbaugh took a rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco, into Heinz Field. Despite some age in the front seven, the Steelers have one of the best defenses in the past two decades. Flacco figured to be like the panicky duck in the AFLAC commercials against Dick LeBeau's zone-blitzing scheme. But nothing LeBeau did rattled the rookie, who made some mistakes but nearly pulled off the upset. The Steelers won 23-20 in overtime, but the Ravens sent a message.
We're not going to back down.
It took a couple of weeks for the Ravens to recover from the Pittsburgh loss. But Baltimore has remained closely on the Steelers' heels, Flacco has remained unflappable and the Ravens' defense has only gotten more confident. If the Ravens can win this home game against the Steelers, they have a chance for a No. 2 seed and could make the Steelers a wild card.
1. New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys must learn how to close the deal. Dallas had a 13-3 lead over the Steelers in Week 14 and was ready to pop the champagne corks when it stopped the Steelers on a goal-line stand in the fourth quarter. But the Steelers came back to win, leaving players stunned and Jerry Jones lamenting the absence of running back Marion Barber.
The same thing happened to Dallas in the NFC East last season. The Cowboys controlled the Giants in the regular season in 2007, sweeping both games. In the playoffs, the Cowboys and their 13 Pro Bowlers lost to the Giants at Texas Stadium. Dallas couldn't close the deal.
New York has taken the NFC East title from the Cowboys, who face a must-win situation. Are the Cowboys contenders or pretenders? We do know that Tony Romo must stop making turnovers, Barber must play no matter how sore his toe is and Terrell Owens must have a big game. This is the season for the Cowboys.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons: Monday night was a wake-up call for the Bucs' defense. Though Tampa Bay's defense has been solid all season, the Panthers overpowered the Bucs with 299 rushing yards in a 38-23 pounding. Big, powerful, no-nonsense offensive lines can take advantage of the light Tampa Bay defensive line.
The Falcons don't have bulk along their offensive line, and Atlanta lost the first meeting against the Bucs in Tampa 31-7. Matt Ryan and the Falcons won over more experts with how well they played in a 29-25 loss to the Saints last week, but moral victories mean nothing now. The Falcons are fighting for a wild-card spot, and a loss could put those chances in jeopardy. Mike Smith needs to find a way for Michael Turner to wear down the Bucs' defense and get more than 100 yards rushing.
3. Minnesota Vikings at Arizona Cardinals: The Vikings, who struggled some in Week 14 against Detroit, can't play as poorly this week against Arizona. Minnesota should have Pat and Kevin Williams to help to stop the run while their federal court case is being reviewed by a Minneapolis judge, but they may not be needed much. The Cardinals pretty much don't run the ball. Kurt Warner's possible MVP season has Ken Whisenhunt playing to the team's strength: passing. In fact, if Whisenhunt spreads the field and maybe even throws in some no-huddle, Brad Childress must decide if he wants both Williamses on the field at the same time.
The other sidelight for Minnesota is the return of Tarvaris Jackson as starting quarterback. He wasn't happy after Childress benched him after two starts, but Vikings fans had been wondering since last year if Jackson is starter material. Gus Frerotte's back problems probably won't heal in time for him to start against the Cardinals.
4. Denver Broncos at Carolina Panthers: Where's Terrell Davis when you need him? Mike Shanahan has gone through six running backs this season, including five who have gone on the injured reserve list. Things were so bad he brought back Tatum Bell, a former Broncos draft choice with explosive speed but a tendency to make mistakes. Shanahan will use Bell, but it's apparent he doesn't have much confidence in him. Cory Boyd, signed off the practice squad, is expected to start.
With the exception of the Broncos, the NFC South has dominated the AFC West this season. Denver is 3-0 against the NFC South, while the other AFC West teams are 0-11 against the NASCAR division. The Broncos aren't fighting for the NFC South division title, but if they win this game, they will clinch the AFC West.
5. Buffalo Bills at New York Jets: When the Jets beat the Titans and appeared to be one of the teams to beat in the AFC, Brett Favre and several of the new Jets veterans didn't fully understand the paranoia that surrounds this franchise. Like Cubs fans, Jets fans love their team, but they always worry about bad things happening. Well, bad things are happening, and Favre understands the paranoia now. New York losses to the Broncos and 49ers have reopened the AFC East.
This game shouldn't be too much trouble for New York. The Jets double-teamed Lee Evans, took away the Bills' running game and worked short passes to beat Buffalo 26-17 on Nov. 2. They just have to repeat that game plan against Bills quarterback J.P. Losman, who is filling in for the injured Trent Edwards.
6. Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans: Though it's too late to mean much, the Texans are generating excitement in Houston. Rookie Steve Slaton has rushed for 1,024 yards, QB Matt Schaub came off his knee injury last week and played well against Green Bay, and the Texans (6-7) have won three straight and have a chance for their first winning season.
The Titans have won seven straight games against the Texans and lead the series 11-2. Jeff Fisher's motivation is that the Titans haven't locked up home-field advantage despite a 12-1 record. If the Steelers beat the Ravens and Titans lose to the Texans, the No. 1 seed could be in play in Week 16 when Tennessee plays the Steelers. Fisher wants to make that game less important by winning this one.
7. San Francisco 49ers at Miami Dolphins: The 49ers are the only West Coast team to win on the East Coast this season, beating Buffalo in Week 15. It's hard for West Coast players to get their bodies moving at peak level when their body clocks are at 10 a.m. for a 1 p.m. East Coast start. In the win over Buffalo, San Francisco had a typically slow start, but the Bills didn't start at all.
The Dolphins figure to hit the 49ers hard with the running game and short passing early to get a lead. Further complicating life for the 49ers is they aren't sure running back Frank Gore (left ankle) will play.
8. New England Patriots at Oakland Raiders: Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell has struggled getting the ball to wide receivers. Believe it or not, Ronald Curry leads Oakland wideouts with just 17 catches. To make matters worse, Randy Moss, whom the Raiders gave away for a fourth-round pick, is coming to town. Moss, even without having Tom Brady throw him the ball, has 61 catches. Russell will be able to play despite an ankle injury suffered in last week's game against San Diego.
9. Cleveland Browns at Philadelphia Eagles: The only mystery in this "Monday Night Football" game (ESPN, 8:30 ET) is whether Andy Reid will try to win the game through the air or on the ground. It's still staggering to think Reid dialed up 33 running plays for Brian Westbrook in the Week 15 win against the Giants. Reid loves winning through the air. Westbrook has battled plenty of injuries this season, but he might be getting healthy at the right time. At 7-5-1, the Eagles need to win out to think about making the playoffs as a wild card.
10. Washington Redskins at Cincinnati Bengals: Washington's Jim Zorn learned a lesson as a first-year head coach. Even if Clinton Portis is too banged up to practice, don't let him stand on the sidelines in uniform and not use him. Portis lives for 22-carry games and wants to be the workhorse of the offense. Obviously that leads to injuries -- Portis has as many injuries as the Redskins have running plays in their playbook. Portis called out Zorn this week, so expect him to get the ball. The injury-depleted Bengals defense is vulnerable against the run.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
5dEric D. Williams
4dEric D. Williams
4dMel Kiper Jr.