From players to coaches, the Ravens have downplayed Sunday's matchup with Philadelphia Eagles receiver Terrell Owens.
It marks the first regular-season meeting between Owens and the team he spurned seven months ago. This past offseason, Owens successfully fought to get his trade to Baltimore overturned and then signed with the Eagles.
"It's about playing the Eagles, period," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "God bless Terrell Owens. I don't hold anything against him. I wish him success and his team success, except against us.
"This is football. I'm against anyone not wearing my uniform. So, I'll be against him, just like all the other Eagles. They're next. That's what the schedule says."
The Ravens, though, are focused on the challenge of playing Owens and the high-scoring Eagles.
Philadelphia is ranked second in the league in scoring (28.5 points per game) and Owens has scored eight of the team's 18 touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the Ravens haven't allowed a touchdown in six quarters. This stingy group has kept four of its past five opponents under 14 points.
This high-profile matchup has several subplots.
There is Owens vs. a Ravens secondary that has allowed two receivers to crack 100 yards. There is quarterback Donovan McNabb against a Ravens pass rush that has registered 18 sacks this season.
"If you're a great defense, you always want to go up against a great offense," LB Terrell Suggs said. "I think besides Minnesota, they're the hottest offense out there right now. We're definitely looking forward to seeing them. This is the type of game this team needs."
The game could come down to turnovers.
Not only does Philadelphia put up points, it rarely gives up the ball. The Eagles have the second-fewest turnovers in the NFL, fumbling twice and getting picked off three times.
The Ravens have relied heavily on forcing turnovers. In their past five games, they have six interceptions and four forced fumbles, scoring three touchdowns off them.
"I believe it was Deion (Sanders) who said, 'When they throw the ball, they're not really throwing it to the wide receiver. They're throwing it to us to go get it.'" cornerback Chris McAlister said. "For us, that's how we approach it."
SERIES HISTORY -- Second meeting. The only game between the franchises came in 1997, when the Ravens and Eagles tied at 10 in Baltimore. It was the only tie in the Ravens' nine-season history. Both teams missed field goals in overtime. Philadelphia tied the game with 1:25 remaining in the fourth quarter on a Charlie Garner 2-yard touchdown run to cap a 60-yard drive.
--In his recently released autobiography, "Catch This, Going Deep with the NFL's Sharpest Weapon," Eagles WR Terrell Owens wrote that general manager Ozzie Newsome used a racially-charged comment in attempt to lure the Pro Bowl receiver to the Ravens seven months ago.
According to the book, Newsome told Owens' agent that "he was a black man from Alabama just like TO" and "that sometimes a black man's gotta be slapped."
Asked about the statement, Newsome said, "Please, why should I respond to that? I did tell TO that he should check with the veterans we brought in over the years. I told him to call Rod Woodson, Shannon Sharpe, Michael McCrary and Sam Adams and they will let him know how we treat veterans here. I'm not talking any more about it."
David Joseph, Owens' agent who is white, declined to comment about that conversation with Newsome, saying only that "It's in the book."
--The Ravens won't adjust their coverage and have cornerback Chris McAlister shadow Owens all over the field.
Last season when Owens was with the 49ers, McAlister matched up against Owens the entire game and held him to three catches for 23 yards.
"We don't flop because we have capable corners," nickel back Deion Sanders said. "We don't single a guy out. When I come in third down, I'm going to do my job."
--Offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said he will miss three to four games with a pulled hamstring, but tight end Todd Heap said he could play although he didn't sound optimistic.
Heap has not played since spraining his ankle in Week 2. He practiced for the first time Wednesday.
"Cutting is the probably the toughest thing right now," Heap said. "I think it's getting better. I haven't felt any residual effects from it other than it hasn't gotten worse from the cutting today."
--Running back Jamal Lewis was given permission from the NFL to return to the Ravens' training facility as he sits out the final game of his league suspension. Lewis, though, can't practice with the team nor attend meetings.
--The Ravens have won 34 straight games and are 41-2 overall under coach Brian Billick when they have fewer turnovers than their opponent.
"It's a huge part of what we are," said Billick, whose team last lost a game in which it won the turnover battle in October 2000 against Washington. "Turnovers, well-documented, are the No. 1 determinant of a game.
--If Billick could vote on who is the best team in the NFC, Philadelphia would win going away.
"They can lay claim to that unarguably," Billick said. "It's non-negotiable. Just like New England is the only undefeated team in the AFC, there is no argument until you lose one."
--The Ravens are 33-8 when they score 21 or more points.
--In his brief career, Terrell Suggs has had multiple sacks in six games. The Ravens have won every time.
--The Ravens have allowed just one 300-yard passer in their past 11 games.
BY THE NUMBERS: 6 -- Number of touchdowns that separates Terrell Owens' total this season (eight) compared to the entire Ravens' receiving corps (two).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We understand that there will be criticism of the offense and Kyle Boller. Partly, he's a victim of our running and defensive success. We're not throwing 40 times. We're throwing 18 times and each one is scrutinized." -- Ravens coach Brian Billick on the struggles of quarterback Kyle Boller.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Ravens are expected to be without all three of their Pro Bowl players on offense. Left tackle Jonathan Ogden (hamstring) and tight end Todd Heap (sprained ankle) probably will be sidelined with injuries, and running back Jamal Lewis will serve the last game of his NFL suspension.
The Ravens have yet to replace the catches left by Heap's four-game absence. Chester Taylor has been an adequate fill-in for Lewis. But the Ravens will have their biggest drop-off with Ethan Brooks stepping in for Ogden.
Center Mike Flynn will return after missing six games with a broken collarbone. Flynn will play about 40 plays in a rotation with right guard Bennie Anderson, and Casey Rabach will remain the starting center. Rabach has done an excellent job and could stay the starter even when Flynn fully recovers.
--QB Kyle Boller is 32nd among NFL quarterbacks in rating (61.8) and 27th in the league in efficiency (56.3 percent).
--WR Kevin Johnson has not caught more than two passes in a game since the opener.
--RB Chester Taylor, who is replacing the suspended Jamal Lewis for the second straight game, is coming off career highs in carries (21) and yards (89).
--CB Deion Sanders has three interceptions in his past two games.
--PR B.J. Sams leads all AFC punt returners with a 14.2-yard average. He has returned a punt for a touchdown in two of his past three games.
--LB Ray Lewis has recorded 10 or more tackles in 14 straight games.
--LB Terrell Suggs has 19 sacks in 22 career games.
--SS Ed Reed has scored five touchdowns in 38 career games.
GAME PLAN: Even without All-Pro running back Jamal Lewis, the Ravens believe they can run on the Eagles, who have allowed 4.9 yards a carry (second-worst in the NFL). They'll rely on the slashing running style of Chester Taylor. The problem will be how the Ravens can still run the ball without injured left tackle Jonathan Ogden.
Defensively, the Ravens will face their biggest challenge of the season. When the Ravens are at their best, they are pressuring the quarterback. The Ravens will send an assortment of blitzes to try and get to quarterback Donovan McNabb, the first mobile quarterback the Ravens have played against this season. But the Ravens will stay mostly in Cover-2 to take away Philadelphia's deep passing game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Ravens RB Chester Taylor vs. Philadelphia run defense: Taylor is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and is making his second start in place of suspended Jamal Lewis. The Eagles allowed 165 yards rushing last week to Cleveland because they had trouble handling the cutback runs.
Ravens pass defense vs. Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb: The Ravens can come from anywhere and have nine players with at least one sack. McNabb buys time with his mobility and has only been sacked 11 times.
Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller vs. Eagles pass rush: Boller has been sacked 10 times in the past three weeks despite having decent mobility. The Eagles will look to confuse him with their assortment of blitzes, which have led to 23 sacks this season.
--OT Jonathan Ogden (pulled hamstring) will miss three to four games. He will likely be replaced by Ethan Brooks.
--TE Todd Heap (sprained ankle) has begun practicing with the Ravens but likely will miss his fifth straight game. He will be replaced by Terry Jones.
--WR Devard Darling (heel) participated in every drill Wednesday in practice and should be available. Darling, though, has been inactive for three of six games this season.
--OT Ethan Brooks (broken thumb) is expected to start in place of Jonathan Ogden.
--OT Orlando Brown (broken index finger) is expected to start at right tackle.
Do the Bengals have another mid-season run in them? They took an important first step with their 23-10 victory over Denver on Monday night and now turn their attention to former division rival Tennessee, their opponent Sunday in Nashville.
The Bengals also started 1-4 in 2003, Marvin Lewis' first season as coach, before going on a 7-2 run. The 2003 team beat Baltimore and Seattle, both first-place teams, to move back into the race.
The test will be tougher to reach 3-4 this year, simply because they are going on the road. The Bengals are 1-4 in Tennessee since the Oilers/Titans franchise moved.
A major key for the Bengals is to attack the opponent. It's what they did in 2003 and what they did Monday night. They threw deep to Chad Johnson against Champ Bailey. They stayed with the run and took pressure off quarterback Carson Palmer, asking him to drop back to throw 22 times (he was sacked once).
Defensively, the Bengals went after Denver quarterback Jake Plummer, registering three sacks. Coaches had confidence to push the pressure up front because cornerbacks Deltha O'Neal and Tory James were solid all night. They also limited big plays, giving Denver a long pass of 35 yards and long run of 13 yards.
Now the Bengals have to follow this formula again.
"Our team plays well when we attack, and we must continue to push this as coaches," Lewis said.
The rush defense was much improved against Denver. While it's still ranked last at 154.2 yards a game, the Bengals allowed 123 yards to the Broncos. The Bengals will face another test against the Titans, who are eighth in the league in rushing at 129.4 yards a game.
Offensively, the Bengals achieved balance by playing with a lead and sticking with the run. That's what they did last season in their run.
Rudi Johnson had 119 yards - including 85 on 12 carries in the second half. He had a 36-yard touchdown run to make it 20-10 on the last play of the third quarter.
"We stuck to what we do best," Johnson said. "And what we do best is run the football, wear people out and make explosive plays."
The Bengals are not looking beyond Tennessee, but the locker room was a brighter place Wednesday when the players went back to work. The season, at least at this point, has been salvaged. After the Titans comes Dallas at home; 4-4 is a real possibility.
"Our job is to just go play," Lewis said. "When you play in the National Football League, the margin of error is so small that you don't worry about your record. You line up and play."
SERIES HISTORY: 68th meeting -- The Tennessee Titans/Houston Oilers have a 37-29-1 edge in the series against the Bengals. The Bengals are 11-21-1 on the road. They are 1-4 since the franchise moved to Tennessee and 2-11 overall since the franchise moved from Houston before the 1997 season. The Bengals won their last visit to Nashville, 23-21, in the 2001 season finale.
-- The Bengals set a single-game franchise record attendance mark of 65,806 on Monday night against Denver. The top three franchise crowds are this season in the three home games. Nos. 4-6 are the last three games of 2003.
-- For a team that doesn't get many chances to play in prime time, the Bengals are 2-0 under the lights this year. They beat Miami on a Sunday night game in September and Denver on Monday night. They are 0-4 in 1 p.m. games.
-- The flap regarding the cut block on Tony Williams spread to Denver on Wednesday.
Williams was blocked low by Broncos right tackle George Foster on Monday night and suffered a broken and dislocated ankle. He had surgery Wednesday and would be the 12th Bengal placed on a season-ending reserve list.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis finally spoke out about the block.
"That will be something the (NFL) competition committee will probably look at," Lewis said. "From what I understand, this is the second player injured in this way playing the Denver Broncos -- both supposedly legal blocks, but not really needed or necessary. It is unfortunate."
Jacksonville defensive end Paul Spicer suffered a broken leg on Sept. 19 when Broncos left tackle Matt Lepsis threw a cut block.
In his Wednesday news conference, Denver coach Mike Shanahan took exception to criticism of Foster's block by Steelers coach Bill Cowher on Tuesday.
"All teams do it," said Shanahan, who invited reporters to the Broncos' video room to show them film clips of other teams throwing chop-blocks. "In the game, Cincinnati had a number of them. I was a little offended with Bill Cowher's statement."
Shanahan also said Denver's blocking is scrutinized because of his team's success running the ball. He did express regret that Williams was injured.
-- Lewis confirmed Wednesday that Peter Warrick's left fibula is "slightly" fractured. The wide receiver, listed as questionable with a shin injury, continues to face uncertainty about his playing time, though he was activated and played a dozen snaps Monday night.
The Bengals might be fined by the NFL for upgrading Warrick to probable and playing him after declaring him out Friday. NFL spokesman Steve Alic said Wednesday "there would be nothing to report until Friday."
The Bengals were not trying to gain a competitive edge, Lewis said: "There is a long time between Friday and Monday. The only thing from us is that we are going to approach that a little more cautiously. I don't think anyone will declare a guy out unless he is on the operating room table. We did what we felt was right as an organization."
-- Responding to surprise that the Bengals did not break out new orange jerseys for the Monday night game, Lewis said they would be worn against Dallas (Nov. 7) and Cleveland (Nov. 28). The Bengals also will wear their new black pants.
-- Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair (sternum) and featured back Chris Brown (toe) were among 11 players listed as questionable by the Titans. Brown's 663 rushing yards are third most in the league.
Bengals tackle John Thornton, a former Titan, thinks McNair will play. McNair has 20 touchdown passes and a 9-3 record against the Bengals.
"If he doesn't play that just tells you what the Titans think about us," Thornton said. "These guys need this game. They're at the bottom of their division, too. If he doesn't play then they feel like their backup can beat us."
The Titans (2-5) have their bye next week. Backup quarterback Billy Volek has made one start among his three appearances and has thrown two touchdowns and three interceptions.
-- "Monday Night Football's" John Madden sat for a 20-minute interview on Saturday night while preparing for the Bengals' Monday night home game against Denver.
He was asked if Marvin Lewis had the Bengals going in the right direction. At that time, the Bengals were 1-4 at the time.
Madden said, "To me, it's how it comes out the other end. You're looking at a work in progress, and when you're looking at a work in progress, you have to project how it's going to come out the other end. I think if they can get Carson Palmer some help. If he proves he's the real deal, it all works out and you forget about (2004). You look at Troy Aikman. After he has a successful career and wins Super Bowls, you forget about how bumpy his road was that first year he played. Is (Palmer) going to be that? If he comes out like Troy Aikman and the Dallas Cowboys, then you laugh about the first year (Palmer started). If you don't come out of it, you look at and say, `Holy cow.'"
BY THE NUMBERS: 8-16 -- Bengals franchise record on Monday night, following the victory Monday night against Denver.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's great for our city and great for us. Logical or not, the city takes a lot of its image from how the team does." -- Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson, on the excitement surrounding the Bengals' Monday night victory.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Defensive tackle Langston Moore was promoted to No. 1 at right tackle in place of injured Tony Williams. Williams faces a six-month recovery after undergoing surgery on his left ankle, which was broken and dislocated Monday night on a cut block by Denver right tackle George Foster.
Moore will start, and rookie Matthias Askew will likely be activated to join the rotation.
Williams is expected to become the 12th Bengals player placed on a reserve list this year. They had just three, and none until December, in 2003.
-- CB Tory James' fourth interception of the season left him tied for the league lead.
-- CB Deltha O'Neal had his first interception against the Broncos, who traded him in April to the Bengals after moving him from cornerback to wide receiver at the end of the season. O'Neal also had his first three punt returns, for 25 yards, and he had a 17-yarder.
-- WR Chad Johnson had 116 receiving yards in the first half against Denver and 149 for the game, three off his career high. He had two 50-yard receptions, one for a touchdown, against Denver cornerback Champ Bailey.
-- K Shayne Graham had 11 points against the Broncos and is on pace for 123, which would break the franchise record of Doug Pelfrey (121) in 1995.
GAME PLAN: The Bengals expect Titans quarterback Steve McNair to play, though he is questionable with a sternum injury. So the Bengals are preparing for McNair and his ability to run. The Bengals will want to play aggressively, blitzing regularly and counting on cornerbacks Deltha O'Neal and Tory James to cover receivers. Tennessee is giving up 115.7 yards rushing a game, so look for the Bengals to run the ball with Rudi Johnson, who is running behind an increasingly healthy offensive line.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Bengals defense vs. Titans QB Steve McNair. McNair has a 9-3 record in 12 games against the Bengals with 20 touchdowns. If he plays, the Bengals need to keep McNair in the pocket and not let him make plays with his legs.
Bengals CBs Deltha O'Neal and Tory James vs. Titans WR Derrick Mason and Drew Bennett. O'Neal and James had interceptions against Denver, the team that drafted both of them. James is tied for the NFL lead with four. Mason (44) and Bennett have combined for 77 receptions, most in the AFC.
Bengals vs. the road. The Bengals have lost their last five in a row on the road, two in December 2003. They are 2-1 at home and 0-3 on the road this season.
INJURY IMPACT: Wide receiver Peter Warrick (fibula) was one of nine Bengals not to practice Wednesday. He made a surprise appearance Monday night but is not expected to get much playing time in the next few weeks. If Warrick can't play, look for Cliff Russell to continue to get some work in the slot.
Safety Rogers Beckett, questionable with aftereffects of a concussion, was the only player listed on the injury report to practice. He wants to return to the lineup, but the Bengals are in no hurry because Kevin Kaesviharn is playing well.
Wide receiver Chad Johnson (knee) is probable. Running back Chris Perry (abdomen) and wide receiver Kelley Washington (ankle) are questionable. Cornerback Rashad Bauman (Achilles) is doubtful.
Johnson was just getting some rest. Perry continues to suffer from nagging injuries just serious enough to keep him on the sidelines. Kenny Watson's play is solid as the No. 2 tailback behind Rudi Johnson.
The Browns entered their bye week with sufficient reasons for both optimism and pessimism.
The good news for the Browns is they have proven they can play with an elite team by taking Philadelphia to overtime before losing 34-31. The Eagles had beaten every previous opponent by at least 10 points.
But a loss is a loss, and the Browns have two weeks to sit on a 3-4 record. Worse, Cleveland's next three opponents - Baltimore, Pittsburgh and the New York Jets - have a combined 14-4 record.
The Browns follow those three games with a road game against Cincinnati before returning home to play New England. The Browns will be underdogs in the next five games with the possible exception of the Bengals. If Cleveland is to make a playoff run, it has to hit its stride immediately.
There are positive signs, however. Quarterback Jeff Garcia finally has a handle on the Browns' offense, in part because offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie has learned it's best to allow Garcia to make plays outside the pocket.
The running game with William Green and Lee Suggs has been productive. Though neither runner is particularly happy about sharing time, they have handled the shared role diplomatically.
The offensive line finally is settled now that Enoch DeMar has solidified the left-guard spot and the tight end combination of Aaron Shea and Steve Heiden has enabled the Browns to fill some of the void left by the injury to Kellen Winslow Jr.
Antonio Bryant looks to be an upgrade over Quincy Morgan at wide receiver once he learns the playbook, and Andre Davis is a bona fide deep threat.
Defensively, the Browns have been erratic. Last year, they had trouble against the run. This year, Cleveland's defensive deficiency has been allowing big plays. The Eagles opened the game with a 65-yard completion to Todd Pinkston against Daylon McCutcheon, and Anthony Henry was beaten twice for touchdowns of 39 and 40 yards by Terrell Owens.
The Browns have allowed seven other pass plays longer than 35 yards this season.
To try to correct that, Chris Crocker will replace Earl Little as the starting free safety after the bye.
"A year ago, it was the run defense," Browns coach Butch Davis said. "Everybody was on a crusade, `We can't stop the run! We can't stop the run! Now we're doing a good job stopping the run, but we've got to stop the big pass plays. That has got to be the No. 1 thing we have to eliminate."
The Browns have received excellent performances from kicker Phil Dawson and punter Derrick Frost, but penalties and turnovers in the return game have been costly. The Browns lost the ball twice on kickoff returns against Philadelphia.
During the bye week, the Browns practiced for a couple of days before getting a long weekend off. They practice again on Monday.
The coaches will spend the time self-scouting the Browns, trying to pick up tendencies that other teams can exploit.
Andre King started for only the second time in his four-year NFL career last week. (The first came two years when the Browns opened in a three-wideout formation in Pittsburgh.)
But King didn't get much of a chance. On Cleveland's second possession, he sprained his ankle after making a catch. The injury wasn't apparent right away. He went back to the huddle, but as the Browns lined up for the next play, he fell. He explained later that he was testing the ankle after leaving the huddle, and he couldn't bear weight on it.
King was starting because Andre Davis was held out of the game with a sprained toe. With Quincy Morgan traded, and Antonio Bryant unfamiliar with much of the offense, King got the start.
Bryant played 22 plays and caught two passes for 26 yards. Most impressively to Butch Davis, Bryant made only one mental error.
As for Andre Davis, the receiver said he would be back for next week's game at Baltimore.
BY THE NUMBERS: 41. Number of years since the Browns won their first four home games of the season. Cleveland blew its chance to match that by losing to Philadelphia.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "On Friday (when I found out I was starting) it was like going down on Christmas and opening up your gifts. "(Now) it's like I opened up a bag of coal." - WR Andre King said, reflecting on the sprained ankle that knocked him out of Sunday's game in the first quarter.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Chris Crocker will replace Earl Little as starting free safety after the bye week.
The move isn't a shock. Crocker had been sharing time with Little in recent games. Crocker, a 2003 third-round pick who also can play cornerback, has better man-to-man coverage skills than Little and is a better tackler. Last week against Philadelphia, he made a nifty play when he chased down wide receiver Greg Lewis on an end-around to prevent a potentially big gain and force a punt.
Against Pittsburgh earlier this month, Crocker intercepted a deflected pass and returned it for a touchdown.
Little had a career-high six interceptions in 2003, but he doesn't have any this season. Little is one of only four players remaining from the team's 1999 expansion season.
--Don't look for the Browns to keep shuffling left guards. Paul Zukauskas started most of the season at that position, but his limited mobility and a sprained knee caused the Browns to turn to DeMar, an undrafted second-year player. DeMar is far from a dominating player, but he is smart and fairly athletic. Most important, he gives the Browns stability on the line.
-- WR Andre Davis, who missed the Eagles game because of a sprained big toe, expects to return to the lineup after the bye week.
-- RG Kelvin Garmon, who barely managed to finish the game Sunday because of a quadriceps strain, is welcoming the bye week as a chance to heal. Garmon said he expects to be ready for next week's game against Baltimore.
-- Linebacker Barry Gardner hopes to return from a torn groin muscle after the bye, but his status is week to week.
--Look for the Browns to sign a kick returner, possibly by re-signing Dee Brown. Brown was cut last week because the Browns were short-handed at wide receiver. But fumbles by James Jackson and Frisman Jackson on kickoff returns may hasten his return.
-- TE Steve Heiden said he expects to his sprained knee to be completely healed following the bye. Heiden has been wearing a brace, which he hopes not to have to use against the Ravens.
Pretenders or contenders? That's what Sunday's game means to Pittsburgh when the Steelers play New England at Heinz Field. Put up or shut up.
It has been a nice little story in Pittsburgh, rookie quarterback leading the Steelers on a four-game winning streak to put them where no one thought they would be after a 6-10 season - in first place in the AFC North with a 5-1 record. Sunday, all that changes. The Steelers have a chance to stamp themselves as legitimate Super Bowl contenders by beating unbeaten New England.
Pittsburgh's five victories were built against opponents with a combined 10-23 record. Over the next two weeks, they play the unbeaten Patriots and Eagles at home. If they upset New England, they will be tied with the Patriots for the best record in the AFC, pending Monday night's game between the one-loss Jets and Dolphins. For the more optimistic, a victory over the Patriots also would give the Steelers the first tiebreaker against New England in the playoffs.
The Steelers have prevailed even though they've lost four starters to injuries at quarterback, right guard and, most recently, nose tackle and cornerback. They began the season as 40-1 longshots to win the Super Bowl compared to New England's top-favorite 6-1 odds.
The Patriots have been a thorn in Pittsburgh's side, and Sunday is a chance for them to remove it and extract a small measure of revenge for New England's upset victory in Heinz Field in the 2001 AFC Championship Game. Since then, the Patriots have won two Super Bowls and the Steelers have slipped - until this season.
"A lot of what we have done to this point has been us not beating ourselves," coach Bill Cowher said. "Being physical, controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and having solid special teams will give you a chance to win a lot of football games. I would like to think that it is a very solid identity to have if we could continue that."
New England's Bill Belichick has beaten Cowher both times they've played, in that AFC title game and then in the opener in 2002. There's a perception that Belichick has outcoached Cowher both times, even though Cowher's teams were 7-2 against Belichick's Cleveland Browns teams. It's another battle-within-the-battle on Sunday.
There's also the matter of rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger going against a Belichick defense that has confounded veteran quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Chad Pennington. Roethlisberger is 4-0 and has looked very unlike a rookie quarterback. But Belichick's defense has ways to convert him.
"They will give us some things that we will have to adjust to," Cowher said. "We just have to play our game. We can't get too caught up in worrying about what they do. I think we have to establish our plan and go out there and play smart, control the clock, make some third downs, and if opportunities present itself to throw the ball down the field, we have to take our shots."
Of more concern are the shots they might have to weather against Tom Brady and Corey Dillon. The Steelers lost their Pro Bowl nose tackle, Casey Hampton, with a knee injury in their last game, and also lost their starting left cornerback, Chad Scott, to a knee injury for 4-6 weeks. Dillon had to love that news, because Hampton was a key to their stopping the run. And Brady can't help but like what he sees when the Steelers trot out a makeshift dime defense with six defensive backs, two of them substitutes with the losses of Scott and veteran safety Mike Logan.
For those reasons, the Steelers could throw some exotic defenses at the Patriots with coordinator Dick LeBeau having two weeks to work on something.
The Steelers' giddy ride after six games of 2004 may not last long either. But if they beat the Patriots, they move from fantasyland into something very real.
SERIES HISTORY - 17th meeting. Steelers lead the series, 11-5 and Bill Cowher also has a 3-2 record against the Patriots, but he has not beaten Bill Belichick since he has coached the Patriots. Belichick is 2-0 against Cowher, including an upset win in the AFC Championship Game following the 2001 season.
-- Linebacker James Farrior, who played New England twice annually when he was with the Jets before joining the Steelers in 2002, is awed by the Patriots' 21-game winning streak.
"To win that many games in an NFL season, the way the NFL is so competitive, it's amazing," said Farrior, who then shook off what Sunday's game might mean in the history books. "We're not worried about history, we're just worried about winning this one game. That's all it is, one game in our season. It's a big game and it will turn a lot of heads if we do well in this game."
--Sunday's game will feature a matchup of Pittsburgh's best red zone offense in the NFL (82.4 percent touchdowns) against the AFC's best red zone defense (29.2).
-- With a victory on the final day of the month, Cowher can increase his October record this season to 4-0 and all-time to 36-13.
-- With 17 sacks in six games, the Steelers have nearly half of their total of 35 for the entire 2003 season, their lowest output under Cowher.
-- Cowher has surpassed Mike Holmgren to become the fourth active NFL coach with 120 victories in the regular season. He's 120-77-1 and Holmgren is 119-79. The top three are Marty Schottenheimer with 169 victories, Bill Parcells with 150 and Joe Gibbs with 126.
BY THE NUMBERS: 7-6 - Pittsburgh's record after bye weeks under Bill Cowher.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's a big game. That is why you are in this business, to play games like this." - Bill Cowher, on Sunday's game vs. New England.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Coach Bill Cowher said the team has looked for a possible No. 3 quarterback but decided to stay the course as Tommy Maddox comes closer to suiting up. The only healthy quarterback on the roster behind rookie Ben Roethlisberger is second-year pro Brian St. Pierre, who has never played in a game. Veteran Mike Quinn is on the practice squad.
-- DE Kimo von Oelhoffen will spend no practice time at nose tackle this week, according to coach Bill Cowher. Von Oelhoffen was their starting nose tackle in 2000.
-- QB Ben Roethlisberger's 100.1 passer rating is the best as a rookie out of any other active NFL quarterback who was drafted in the first round. If he maintains his .690 completion percentage (78 of 113) he will break the all-time best mark for NFL rookies (58.4 by Dan Marino).
-- WR Plaxico Burress has 244 career receptions and can move into seventh place in team history with seven more catches.
-- RB Jerome Bettis is sixth on the NFL's all-time rushing list but he has not been able to conquer New England. In three games against the Patriots, he hass never had more than 80 yards and has 163 total and a 3.4-yard average per carry with no touchdowns.
-- LB Joey Porter continues to lag behind in sack production. Porter, who had 28.5 sacks over three seasons, 2000-2002, has one this year after getting five last season.
GAME PLAN: Don't be surprised to see the Steelers throw some different defenses at Tom Brady, Corey Dillon and New England's potent, balanced offense. The loss of Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton will force them into some of it because replacement NT Chris Hoke just does not have the talent or size of Hampton. On offense, they want to run the ball with Duce Staley but will also test New England's banged-up secondary, especially deep to Plaxico Burress.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Pro Bowl matchup between Pats CB Ty Law and Steelers WR Hines Ward. ... C Jeff Hartings, FB Dan Kreider and RB Duce Staley vs. New England run-stuffer Ted Johnson and playmaker Tedy Bruschi at inside linebacker. ... Rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. Patriots confusing defenses. ... Pats RDE Richard Seymour vs. Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca. ... Patriots K Adam Vinatieri vs. Heinz Field's swirling, confusing winds.
INJURY IMPACT: The loss NT Casey Hampton (knee, IR) will force the Steelers to play a different kind of game. Chris Hoke replaces him as a starter but expect other things to happen on defense because of it. ... LB Kendrell Bell is practicing for the first time this season but won't start, if he plays at all. ... WR Lee Mays is questionable with turf toe, meaning special-teamer Sean Morey would either have to become the No. 4 receiver or they will use TE Jay Riemersma or TE Jerame Tuman in that role.
AFCN Notes (Thurs.)