After the first three games of the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers were 1-11 dating back to the midway point of last year. They're 5-0 since.
But reality arrives this week with a trip to Nashville to play Tennessee, arguably the NFL's best team right now. A win and the Steelers (5-3) close within a game of the Titans (7-1), a loss and they're in a tough race for an AFC wild-card berth.
The Steelers' streak is the kind a lot of middling teams have in a watered-down league. Three of their wins are over Cincinnati, Cleveland and Jacksonville, combined record 7-19; another came against the Jets after they knocked out Vinny Testaverde on the first play. Last week they won 9-6 over Baltimore, which hasn't scored a touchdown in five games.
"I don't think we've played our best football yet," says linebacker Levon Kirkland, leader of what once again is one of the NFL's best defenses. "And that's cool. We want to be playing our best in January."
That's pretty confident for a team coming off a 1-11 streak. And pretty confident going into Nashville.
The Titans have won seven straight after an opening day loss, including a 23-20 win in Pittsburgh in which an injured Steve McNair came off the bench for an injured Neil O'Donnell to lead a game-winning touchdown drive. That's how things have gone for the Titans -- despite a spate of injuries, particularly on offense, they find ways to pull out games.
"In years past, we had difficulty overcoming stress within games," coach Jeff Fisher says. "Now I rarely see anyone blink on our sidelines."
That's why the Titans won in Washington on a 69-yard punt return by Derrick Mason and an 81-yard interception return by Samari Rolle on the last play of the half.
"It was not necessarily the conventional way," Fisher said.
The Titans aren't a conventional team. But they're a good one.
In other games Sunday, Miami is at Detroit; Buffalo at New England; Indianapolis at Chicago; Tampa Bay at Atlanta; Dallas at Philadelphia; Baltimore at Cincinnati; Pittsburgh at Tennessee; the New York Giants at Cleveland; San Francisco at New Orleans; Washington at Arizona; Denver at New York Jets; San Diego at Seattle; Kansas City at Oakland; and Carolina at St. Louis.
Minnesota is at Green Bay on Monday night.
Jacksonville is off.
Kansas City (5-3) at Oakland (7-1)
Three weeks ago the Raiders won 20-17 in Kansas City, one of the toughest road venues in the league. That gave them two straight wins at Arrowhead -- they knocked the Chiefs from the playoffs on the final game of last season -- after a run in which Kansas City won 18 of 20 meetings.
Does the law of averages favor the Chiefs now?
Throw out two wins over Seattle and their other six games were against teams currently .500 or better. They could be without center Tim Grunhard, who has started 120 straight games, but has a sprained ankle.
Miami (6-2) at Detroit (5-3)
The Dolphins are certainly resilient -- they were outscored 50-7 through the last quarter and overtime of the Jets loss and 29 minutes of last week's game with the Packers. Then they scored 28 straight and beat Green Bay 28-20.
But linebacker Zach Thomas remains out, a blow to their defense. And Lions QB Charlie Batch is getting more mobile after missing all of preseason with a broken leg. He scrambled four times for 62 yards in Indianapolis last week, where the Lions lost 30-18 after trailing 23-0.
Minnesota (7-1) at Green Bay (3-5) (Monday night)
Brett Favre and LeRoy Butler, nostalgic for Super Bowls past, fear the younger Packers will give up. "I'm worried about the team separating," Butler says. "I'm worried about our young guys and the whole team going into the tank."
The Vikings' confidence may be shaken by the 41-13 thumping they took in Tampa. They should remember another Monday night at Lambeau Field, Oct. 5, 1998, when Randy Moss had five catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns and the Vikings won 37-24.
Dallas (3-5) at Philadelphia (5-4)
Troy Aikman has back spasms and won't start. That could be to the advantage of the Cowboys, although neither Dave Campo nor Jerry Jones would be politically incorrect enough to say it. His replacement is Randall Cunningham, returning to Philadelphia for the first time since he left on bad terms five years ago after 11 seasons with the Eagles.
The Eagles, who won 41-14 in Dallas opening week, would be in playoff position were it not for the Giants. In two wins over the Eagles, New York's very average offense has scored 57 of the 134 points that Philadelphia has allowed this year. That's 43 percent.
Carolina (3-5) at St. Louis (7-1)
Bud Carson, the 69-year-old defensive guru, had an immediate impact when the Rams held the 49ers to 24 points, almost nine under their defensive average entering the game. On the other hand, the St. Louis offense is collapsing -- for the second straight week, it was held to a season-low 34.
Everything is going wrong for the Panthers, who have nine regulars on injured reserve. The latest is tight end Wesley Walls with a knee injury.
San Francisco (2-7) at New Orleans (5-3)
The Saints have won four straight against teams with a combined record of 9-24, moving into wild-card contention in a division that clearly belongs to the Rams. But are they good enough to win five straight, even against a team that's last in the NFL in defense?
That makes this game interesting. San Francisco's biggest weakness is against the pass. The Saints run behind Ricky Williams, who had his streak of five straight 100-yard games stopped last week.
Denver (4-4) at New York Jets (6-2)
A critical game for both teams.
Denver probably can't catch Oakland or Kansas City in the AFC West, but a 6-2 finish might get it a wild-card spot. Terrell Davis and Howard Griffith, the banged-up backfield, could be back.
The Jets discovered in Buffalo on Sunday that you can't always live on the edge and survive. But do they have a formula for getting up early and holding a lead?
Tampa Bay (4-4) at Atlanta (3-6)
The Bucs have to continue what they did last week against the Vikings if they're to continue to do what they did last season, when they finished 8-1 after a 3-4 start. Shaun King doesn't have to throw four TD passes every week to get there.
RB Jamal Anderson seems to be getting back into form for the Falcons, who broke a five-game losing streak last week against Carolina. But too many injuries and too many holes have already left them too far back.
Baltimore (5-4) at Cincinnati (2-6)
Six weeks ago, the Ravens shut out the Bengals 37-0.
Since then, they haven't scored a touchdown, although they're 2-3 over that span. Another quarter and they break a record set by the 1991 Colts for longest stretch without a TD. Matt Stover, the kicker, has scored their last 46 points.
Two weeks ago, Corey Dillon, set an NFL record with 278 yards rushing in Cincinnati's win over Denver. Last week, they managed to get by the Browns, 12-3.
That sounds like a Ravens score.
New York Giants (6-2) at Cleveland (2-7)
The Giants, back in first place in the NFC East, have even surprised themselves. "If you'd told me we'd be 6-2 at the halfway point, I'd have said, 'Yeah, I'll take that,' " says quarterback Kerry Collins, who acknowledges that 5-3 or 4-4 would have been more likely.
This should be win No. 7, even if New York, as it often does, plays down to the opposition. The Browns have lost six straight after a 2-1 start and with Tim Couch out, rookie Spergon Wynn might be at quarterback against the NFL's eighth-ranked defense.
Washington (6-3) at Arizona (2-6)
The Redskins dropped a half-game behind the Giants by losing to Tennessee and now have to make a long road trip off a short week. Not good scheduling, as Daniel Snyder is bound to point out if the Redskins lose.
With Jeff George starting for Brad Johnson, who has a bad knee, they probably won't falter against a team that just finds way to lose. Playing for Dave McGinnis for the first time, the Cardinals outgained New Orleans 414-256, but lost 21-10 because Jake Plummer threw two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown.
Indianapolis (6-2) at Chicago (1-7)
The Colts will probably have few problems in their short trip up I-65. But the Bears offense might be improved. Jim Miller had the bye week to prepare to play quarterback after Cade McNown was injured two weeks ago in Philadelphia.
The only problem for the Colts might be the weather in Chicago, problematical at this time of year.
Buffalo (4-4) at New England (2-6)
These games are almost always close. Three of the last four were decided by four points or less, and the other was a 17-7 win by the Bills in Buffalo last season.
Buffalo's problem is living in the AFC East, where it trails three 6-2 teams. It's also 4-1 at home, but 0-3 on the road, which is not the way to make the playoffs.
San Diego (0-8) at Seattle (2-7)
It's hard to believe the Chargers won't get a win somewhere. Their 15-13 loss to the Raiders last Sunday night was their fourth by a touchdown or less. The defense keeps them in games until it gets worn down because the 28th-ranked offense keeps going three and out.
Seattle's Jon Kitna starts again at quarterback while Brock Huard continues to recover from a concussion. Neither looks like the man Mike Holmgren wants to run his team for the long run.
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