It's an outstanding slate consisting of six match-ups that will determine division titles and playoff berths.">
It's an outstanding slate consisting of six match-ups that will determine division titles and playoff berths.">

Battle for the Basements

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> Even the release the NFL put out for this weekend's slate of games asked the question "How did the NFL schedule-makers arrange this?" <br><br> It's an outstanding slate consisting of six match-ups that will determine division titles and playoff berths.

At the bottom of the card is the game those schedule-makers assumed would be among those six: The 4-8 Pittsburgh Steelers are hosting the 3-9 Oakland Raiders.

Last year, the two teams combined for a 24-12-1 record, including playoff games. The Steelers reached the NFL's final eight and the Raiders used home-field advantage to reach the Super Bowl. A 30-17 win over the Steelers in Week Two gave the Raiders the necessary edge for that home-field edge.

Obviously, today's game means a lot less. Does it mean anything at all?

"For us, it's the bottom of the cellar," said Oakland wide receiver Tim Brown. "Whoever wins this game will be one up on the team for the bottom of the cellar. It may not be what we wanted it to be for, but it is still for something. Right about now, you have to find something to play for and that is what we are shooting for."

For the Raiders, it's a case of growing old at once. The leaders from last year - Rich Gannon, Rod Woodson, Bill Romanowski, Trace Armstrong - are injured and out. Players such as Brown and Jerry Rice, who were good enough to complement those leaders, are now too old to help at all.

The Raiders' offensive line has been dubbed "a bunch of slobs" by one front-office source. Playing quarterback is journeyman Rick Mirer, who, in his fifth game of the season last Sunday, completed 13 of 30 passes with a passer rating of 59.4.

Since Mirer can't pass as well as the Raiders have grown accustomed, they've reinserted tailback Tyrone Wheatley to lead a power running game. The 31-year-old showed signs of life last week with 85 yards on 8 carries in the 22-8 loss to the Denver Broncos.

Defensively, the Raiders are 28th in the league overall and dead last against the run. The loss of defensive tackles John Parrella and Dana Stubblefield to injuries is part of the problem, although Stubblefield is expected back today.

Another problem has been last year's first-round pick, Napoleon Harris. As a rookie, he played middle linebacker after playing defensive end at Northwestern University. He's been moved back outside in favor of Tim Johnson, a Youngstown State product who was cut earlier in the season.

At safety, the Raiders are using rookie corner Nnamdi Asomugha and Pitt's Anthony Dorsett to replace injured starters Woodson and Derrick Gibson.

On top of the age/injuries/slobs problem, the Raiders also lead the league in penalties and were dubbed "the dumbest team in America" by their coach last week. Then again, Callahan isn't the brightest bulb in the pack. When asked to expound on the 65 passes his team threw on the Steelers last season, Callahan responded by asking if "you want me to fax you our game plan or something?"

Callahan was more reasonable in trying to explain the difficulties teams have coming back from an appearance in the Super Bowl.

"I think the dynamic of bringing your team back into the off-season to work and to prepare after a very short span is one of the aspects," he said. "I think the off-season gets cut short and the players need time and opportunity to regenerate themselves, and you come into training camp with high expectations and you are forced to play a schedule that is extremely tough and challenging. With that in mind, you are facing an opponent that has directed its energies to knock you off.

"I think the dynamic of how a team plays you, the energy level at which they play you, and also how they come at you with a higher level of play. They play much higher."

It's questionable whether the Steelers have the ability to come at the Raiders "with a higher level of play." They're not as dumb, as injured or as old as the Raiders, but the Steelers are playing as if they have a bad case of post-Super Bowl meltdown, too. It's something neither team will have to worry about in the foreseeable future.

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