Faraway dreams and hopes of fast finishes

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> With three weeks remaining, 11 of the 16 AFC teams are still in the playoff picture. That includes the 5-8 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 5-8 New York Jets, who meet today at The Meadowlands. <br><br> It's almost a moot - or mute, as Steelers Coach Bill Cowher is fond of saying - point, but there are scenarios available for each team.

The Steelers can win the AFC North division by beating the Jets, San Diego Chargers and Baltimore Ravens, if the Ravens also lose to the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns, and if the Cincinnati Bengals lose at least two of their final three games.

The Jets can't win their division, and their wild-card chances are even longer than the Steelers' wild-card chances, and so it appears both teams will simply line up and play for pride today.

"It's still great to have a chance (for the playoffs), but for us it's just a matter of putting back-to-back wins and getting on a streak," said Steelers receiver Hines Ward. "I think if we do that we'll propel and lead ourselves regardless of how the season ends and it'll help us carry over to next year."

Ward has experience in that department. He was part of the 2000 team that won four of its final five games to finish 9-7. The next year, the Steelers went 13-3 and played in the AFC Championship Game.

"I remember feeling good going into that next year," Ward said. And it wasn't the first time in recent Steelers history:

  • The 1991 Steelers won their last two games for then-coach Chuck Noll to finish 7-9 and then went 11-5 for Cowher in 1992.
  • The 1988 Steelers finished their 5-11 season with three wins in four games and went 9-7 and made the playoffs the following year.
  • The 1986 Steelers finished their 6-10 season with two wins in three games and went 8-7 the following year.

Of course, teams can also finish poorly and begin dynasties the next season. The 1971 Steelers finished with three losses in four games and we all know what happened the next year. So what's it really all about?

"You want to finish at least .500," Ward said. "You don't want to say you had a losing year. If you're .500, you can point to games here and there that could've been the difference. Ending the year with a losing record? Nobody feels good about finishing the year up with a losing record. Anything beats having a losing year."

"You've got to go out a winner," said defensive end Aaron Smith. "If you're 7-9 you kind of feel you've got a long ways to go and a lot to work on. There's something about the stigma of being a losing team. If you're 8-8, at least you know you're right in the middle of the pack."

The Steelers and Jets are fighting today for their places in the middle of that pack. The Steelers believe they can move up with a running game that's coming off its first individual 100-yard game of the season.

Jerome Bettis rushed for 106 yards on 27 carries against the Raiders, who, at the time, were the league's worst run defense. That honor now belongs to the Jets, who were carved up by the Buffalo Bills for 203 yards on 41 carries last week.

Surprisingly, though, the Jets have actually played better run defense than the Steelers throughout the last five games.

Against opponents with an aggregate winning percentage of .359 through the last five weeks (the weakest schedule in the NFL over that stretch), the Steelers have allowed 4.3 yards per carry. The Jets, playing .492 opposition, allowed 4.0 yards per carry during the same stretch, which coincided with the Jets gaining 4.3 yards per carry compared to the Steelers' dismal 3.2 yards per carry the last five weeks.

Bettis is only five yards from passing Franco Harris to move into eighth place on the NFL's all-time rushing list, and needs 128 rushing yards to pass Marcus Allen for seventh place, so "The Bus" will be motivated.

"If you don't come at him correctly," said Jets Coach Herm Edwards, "he will bust your clavicle."

But If Bettis is expected to run through his opponent's soft middle, the same can be said for Jets running back Curtis Martin, who needs 39 yards to pass John Riggins for 11th on the all-time list. It's unlikely that Martin can bust any clavicles, though, only faraway playoff dreams and hopes of fast finishes.

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