Sunday's Steelers-Ravens game in Baltimore was billed as a showdown between two of the best defenses in football. "I told the guys it was going be a heavyweight fight," said Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, "and I told them that we weren't going to be Andrew Golata."
The Steelers, in fact, delivered a pair of knockout punches to the Baltimore offense when they recovered a Trent Dilfer fumble at the Pittsburgh nine-yard line and when cornerback Dewayne Washington intercepted Dilfer in the end zone to halt another scoring drive. It became clear the Ravens wouldn't score, and they did not. The win, Pittsburgh's fifth in as many weeks, lifts the Steelers into second place in the AFC Central and has them on course for a return to the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
"It's a big win," allowed coach Bill Cowher. "Everything we've been fighting to do to get back in this position, we recognize that it is in front of us now."
The Pittsburgh defense, in an effort to show their defense is of the same quality as Baltimore's, shut yet another opponent out of the end zone. It's been four games since anyone scored a touchdown on Baltimore, and in the course of their five-game winning streak, the Steelers have allowed just 16 points.
"I think ours is just as good as theirs," said defensive end Kevin Henry of the two defenses. "We feel like if we keep winning, all that other stuff will come. We're not worried about attention. Ultimately, if we go to the Super Bowl, who is going to be talking about the Ravens defense."
Quarterback Kordell Stewart improved the Steelers record to 3-0 this season when he starts. He wasn't flashy, just effective. Stewart completed nine of 18 passes for 133 yards, despite being sacked five times by the Ravens defense, and tossed a 46-yard touchdown to Hines Ward which tied the game at 6-6 in the second half. His teammates recognize what Stewart means to their current situation.
"God bless him," said left tackle Wayne Gandy. "For all of those times he was called all the names in Pittsburgh and all those things. He just adds another dimension as far as running the ball. He gets those tough first downs sometimes, that might not have been there if he were not a mobile quarterback."
There doesn't appear to be any of the strife between the Steelers strong-willed defense and an offense that has almost as much difficulty scoring as Pittsburgh's opponents.
"Can we keep winning 9-6?" asked Washington. "I can't really say. That's just the way this game turned out. Who knows, we might win some games, 21-20. As long as we win, we're really not worried about the score."
Up next: at Tennessee, 7-1
Coach Brian Billick's nerves are starting to wear thin. For the fifth consecutive game and in their third consecutive loss, the Ravens have failed to score a touchdown. Not since the 1993 Indianapolis Colts has a squad gone as long as the 20 quarters between touchdowns that this Baltimore team has.
"The perspective here has to change," said a grim-faced Billick. "There are no easy answers for this. We're in a dead dogfight now to reach our main objective, which is to reach the playoffs."
Making the playoffs would seem a distant reality for a team without a quarterback. In his first start for Baltimore, Trent Dilfer did many of the same things that Tony Banks has done in recent weeks. Dilfer fumbled the snap at the Pittsburgh nine-yard line in the first half and overthrew receiver Qadry Ismail in the second, a pass that found its way into the arms of cornerback Dwayne Washington.
Banks fumbled a snap on the Redskins one-yard line two weeks ago and tossed an interception in the end zone against Tennessee last week. Dilfer finished his first start in nearly a year a mediocre 11 of 24 for only 152 yards and the interception.
"Sometimes I wish I was a billionaire," said tight end Shannon Sharpe, "because I'd like to give the fans all their money back, because this is ridiculous. They deserve to have their money back the way we played in the past month."
The Ravens hope the start of the NFL's most critical month, November, assists them in their plight. They finished October without scoring a touchdown.
Rookie wide receiver Travis Taylor, who paid for a dropped pass against the Steelers by landing on his shoulder and breaking his collarbone, is likely to be sidelined for the remainder of the regular season.
The Ravens defense continues to play at an extremely high level. They've allowed just four touchdowns in the last six games and lead the league by allowing just 8.9 points per game.
"We still haven't done our part," veteran safety Rod Woodson said. "They scored a touchdown every week and we've lost every week. How have we done our part? If our offense doesn't score, then we can't let them score, period. If we want to be a great defense, then we have to have that mindset."
It's been one play here and one play there that has bitten Baltimore on their defensive hind. Two Sundays ago they didn't tackle Titans quarterback Steve McNair, who performed a perfect pirouette and escaped to throw a touchdown pass. Cornerback Duane Starks was caught twice trying to grab the ball instead of breaking up a Kordell Stewart pass, and it cost Starks as Hines Ward took one in for a 46-yard touchdown.
"Every cornerback is vulnerable to some type of deep pass," said Billick. "Duane's an excellent corner for us. There were a number of great plays. He just had some difficulty on that play."
The Ravens travel to Cincinnati and Tennessee in consecutive weeks.
Up next: at Cincinnati, 2-6.
The Bengals don't care if you don't think their 12-3 win in Cleveland wasn't pretty. "It was ugly, I know," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson, "but football is not a pretty sport. Look at these scratches and scars. Look at me. I'm not the prettiest person."
When you've lost as many games for as many years as Cincinnati, you'll take any win any way it comes. What they do want you to notice is that the franchise, which lost more games than any other in the 1990's and more than any other team in any other decade of professional football, is starting to take steps towards reconciling itself. The Bengals' consecutive wins to end October are the first back-to-back wins in October since 1989 and their wins mark the first time they've won two games in October since 1990.
Interim coach Dick LeBeau has turned things around somewhat by asking quarterback Akili Smith just to play within the game plan. The Bengals are going to win or lose the remainder of the season on the strength of running back Corey Dillon. Dillon ran for 137 yards in Cleveland and coming off his 278-yard performance against Denver, his two-game total of 415 yards is the third-highest back-to-back total in NFL history.
On two scoring drives against the Browns, Cincinnati ran the ball 15 times in 18 plays, which is just fine according to LeBeau. "This was like an old-time football game," he said, "and for an old defensive football coach, it was a very pretty game."
Since LeBeau took over, the Bengals have run the ball 169 times and thrown it only 131. The coach knows his team has a much greater winning percentage when Dillon runs for 100 yards, and when he runs for more than 125 yards they're 7-0. Dillon wouldn't take all the credit after the win.
"Let's get this straight. I'm not the whole show," he said. "Everybody's out there working together. The offensive line is playing great. The receivers are making their blocks. Akili's doing his job. Our hard work is starting to show up in the stats."
Holding Cleveland to a field goal isn't the mightiest of tests, but a third-quarter goal-line stand told LeBeau what he has to work with. Cornerback Rodney Heath was called for pass interference, which gave the Browns the ball at the Bengals one-yard line. On three consecutive running plays, rookie running back Travis Prentice was unable to penetrate the end zone. The Browns settled for a field goal and the Bengals knew they had won.
"Ninety-eight percent of it is desire," said Gibson. "We just wanted it. It's man on man down there. Who's tougher?"
The Bengals get a chance to see just how far they've come when they play a sliding Baltimore squad on Sunday in Cincinnati. The Ravens tossed a 37-0 shutout at the Bengals in September. Dillon was held to just nine yards on 12 carries by a Baltimore defense that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in nearly two years.
"I don't think it's a revenge type of thing," he said. "We just want to have a better performance than we did. This is going to be the ultimate test."
Up next: Baltimore, 5-4
Cleveland coach Chris Palmer has been in this situation before. In 1997 he helped Jacksonville win three consecutive games with three different quarterbacks. On Sunday against Cincinnati, without starter Tim Couch, Palmer elected to use a two-quarterback system of veteran Doug Pederson and rookie Spergon Wynn.
"I thought about it on Monday and I realized that if Doug goes down, then Spergon would not have played at all," he reasoned. "I looked at the emergency list of quarterbacks and I thought we were putting ourselves in a position where, if something happened to Doug, then we really would have been behind the eight-ball."
Palmer didn't enjoy the same success against Cincinnati that he did against Baltimore, New York and Pittsburgh while with the Jaguars. Pederson and Wynn combined for just 13 completions in 32 attempts for 147 yards. Neither man was enamored by the system that sent Wynn into the game every third series, regardless of the situation.
"It can disrupt things a little bit," said Pederson, "but you have to make it work. We get paid to make it work."
Palmer's Browns are already behind the eight-ball, even if the coach won't admit it. After a 2-1 start, they've dropped six straight and, with four offensive starters gone for the season, their potential to score has dropped dramatically. Even at point-blank range in the second half, when a pass interference penalty gave Cleveland the ball at the Bengals one-yard line, the Browns were unable to punch it in.
"That's a pride thing," groused guard Everett Lindsey. "I don't think anybody should be able to stop us."
The inability of the Browns offense to do anything with the football is taking away some inspiring performances from young players on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Courtney Brown continues to develop as a pass-rusher and second-year middle linebacker Wali Rainer had 10 solo tackles in a strong showing on Sunday.
With his team's season spiraling out of his control and with key players watching from the sidelines, Palmer tried to spin things back to the big picture he and the Browns have their eyes on. "If you look at the wins, you have blinders on," he instructed. "We have to continue the growth of the team and, trust me, it's not easy. It's not fun, but you have to go through it."
Up next: New York Giants, 6-2
The Titans moved to the front of the pack in the NFL with their Monday night win in Washington. Tennessee had just 189 yards of offense, 96 on the ground and 93 through the air, but got a 69 yard punt return for a touchdown from Derrick Mason and an 81-yard interception return from Samari Rolle to take a 20-7 lead at the half and control the game.
"Again, this team found a way to win," head coach Jeff Fisher said. "It was not necessarily the conventional way. It was kind of hit and miss. It's like the rule now instead of the exception. We know somehow we'll find a way."
It was Tennessee's seventh consecutive win since losing in Buffalo on opening day and, at 7-1, the Titans are tied with the Raiders, Rams and Vikings for the league's best record at the midway point.
The stadium announcer at FedEx field, a controversial figure of late, introduced the Tennessee offense as if reading off the roll call in a classroom. It appeared as if his disregard for the Titans offense was justified in the first half as they managed just 71 yards in the first half and had just five first downs, but Eddie George, playing on a sprained knee, carried the ball 22 times and ground out 71 yards and also caught five passes for 42 more yards.
"I can't say enough about Eddie and all of the work he put in to get himself into position to play and then contribute," said Fisher.
Mason's second-quarter punt return gave the Titans a 10-7 lead, but it was Rolle's interception that broke the game open and showed why the Titans are the league's best team. All 10 of Rolle's defensive teammates were downfield blocking the Redskins. It was impressive to watch and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams says the tape will show even more.
"I saw three Redskins get completely de-cleated and everybody else is telling me there were five," he said of the return. "That will go down in our film library as how you're supposed to do it."
"People keep talking about the Redskins, the Rams and the Vikings," said defensive tackle John Thornton. "Tampa Bay gets a lot of attention even when they lose. That's OK with us. Everybody can ignore us and we'll just keep winning."
Up next: Pittsburgh, 5-3