If Kris Brown hadn't missed four field goals against Baltimore in Pittsburgh five weeks ago, the Steelers would be home free in the AFC Central and the Ravens would be scrambling for a wild-card playoff berth.
But Brown missed them, Baltimore won 13-10 and Pittsburgh leads the Ravens by two games as it heads to PSINet Stadium for a showdown with the reigning Super Bowl champs.
Baltimore, favored by 3 points, has won five of six. But nothing has come easy for the Ravens, who are not nearly as dominant on defense as they were last year - in part because of injuries, in part because, like most Super Bowl champions, they've been unable to sustain last year's level of intensity.
On the other hand, everything but the kicking is going well for the Steelers, especially on defense. Jerome Bettis may be out this week, but the combination of Amos Zereoue and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'alafa filled in competently in last week's 18-7 win over the Jets.
Both teams will almost surely make the playoffs. But Pittsburgh's stakes are higher: home-field advantage in the AFC, for one thing.
This is by far the toughest game (on paper) the Steelers have left. Paper doesn't mean much these days. Maybe Brown misses another extra point, but ...
Miami (plus 3 1/2 ) at San Francisco
Jeff Garcia didn't pass his first big-game test. He's at home for this one.
St. Louis (minus 6) at New Orleans (Monday night)
The Saints have beaten the Rams in three of their four meetings the past two years, including a playoff game.
Philadelphia (minus 3) at Washington
The Eagles are 5-0 on the road and will be more prepared than the first time.
Tampa Bay (plus 3) at Chicago
The points are for home field, which doesn't mean much these days. The Bucs are on their annual late playoff drive.
Minnesota (minus 3) at Detroit
Is this Detroit's win? This week it finds another way to lose: a safety in the final seconds on a snap over the head of the punter.
Cincinnati (plus 9) at New York Jets
The Jets don't win in December. The Bengals don't win, period.
Denver (off) at Kansas City
Off because of Brian Griese. Chiefs playing better lately.
New England (minus 4) at Buffalo
New England should be a little wary.
Oakland (minus 4) at San Diego (Saturday)
The Raiders have to find a way to stop the run. The Chargers just have to find a way, period.
Green Bay (minus 2 1/2 ) at Tennessee
Are the Titans still trying?
Arizona (plus 5) at New York Giants (Saturday)
The Cards are playing harder.
Dallas (plus 5 1/2 ) at Seattle
All the Cowboys' wins are in the NFC Least.
Jacksonville (plus 2 1/2 ) at Cleveland
The Browns are exhausted and injured.
The Jaguars are exhausted and injured.
Atlanta (plus 4) at Indianapolis
Has anyone noticed that Peyton's cold streak started when he broke his jaw.
Don't blame him.
LAST WEEK: 10-5 (spread); 11-4 (straight up).
SEASON: 95-81-8 (spread); 125-60 (straight up).
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