Game Day: So much on the line

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> Banged up and perhaps emotionally drained, the Steelers (11-1) can set records and clinch a division title today by beating the New York Jets (9-3) in a 4 o'clock game at Heinz Field.

With a four-game lead at the three-quarter pole, the Steelers need either one more win or a loss by the Baltimore Ravens to clinch their 17th division title, which would tie San Francisco for the NFL lead since the 1970 merger.

And don't think for a second the Steelers are too busy chasing a championship to turn their noses up at their eighth division crown in the Bill Cowher era.

"We definitely think about it," said center Jeff Hartings. "I guess everyone has the same ultimate goal when you go into a season, so to be able to achieve it you've got to do this to get to the ultimate goal."

So, there would be a post-game celebration?

"Yeah," Hartings said. "It's something, at least inside, I take a lot of pride in. That would be three out of four years."

"We were picked last, or third, in our division by some of the media people," said receiver Hines Ward. "If you have the opportunity to win home-field advantage then you try to do that. But this week, if we win, we clinch and it means we'll have met one of our team goals."

Just don't expect champagne or cigars.

"T-shirts," Ward said. "I'm looking for my t-shirt and hat. But you know we're going to celebrate, enjoy. Winning the division is our goal, so there'll be some celebration. Then we'll move on to the next week."

The Steelers are in a heated race with the New England Patriots (11-1) for the top seed and home-field advantage in the AFC. The top two teams receive byes in the first round of the playoffs. Challenging the Steelers and Patriots for a bye are the Jets, Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers, all 9-3.

The Steelers can also make some revisions to the record book with a win today. They would tie the 1975 team for longest in-season winning streak at 11 games. The Steelers have won 10 in a row. The team's all-time record for consecutive wins is 12 set during the 1978-79 seasons.

Rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would not only extend his record for most wins (10) to start a rookie season, he would knock Mike Tomczak out of the books for most consecutive wins to start a career. Tomczak won the first 10 games he started for the Chicago Bears in the mid-1980s.

Steelers running back Jerome Bettis and Jets running back Curtis Martin will also be dueling for a place in the record book this afternoon.

Bettis is currently fifth on the all-time rushing list with 12,980 yards. This year he's rushed for 627 yards and has returned to a back-up role since Duce Staley returned last week.

Martin, a Penn Hills native, Allderdice High graduate and former Pitt player, is only six yards behind Bettis and leads the NFL with 1,305 rushing yards this season. It appears as if Martin will pass Bettis on the latter's home turf.

"This is his home," Bettis corrected. "If there's any time, this would be the right time and it'd be fitting for us to be playing against each other when it happens."

Actually, Martin passed Bettis last Sunday afternoon, but Bettis gained 17 yards that night to recapture fifth place, 279 yards behind No. 4 Eric Dickerson.

The Steelers are hoping last Sunday night's physical and emotional win didn't take too much out of them. They'll be missing linebacker Kendrell Bell, cornerback Chad Scott and wide receiver Plaxico Burress. They're also expected to be without third-down back Verron Haynes for a second-consecutive game. Defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen missed two practices with a knee injury but expects to play.

In all, the Steelers have 15 players on their injured list. The Jets, on the other hand, will be without only one player, defensive end John Abraham. The team's sacks leader, Abraham will be replaced by former No. 1 pick Bryan Thomas. The Jets have only one other injured starter, but linebacker Victor Hobson is expected to play.

Both teams are defensive-minded. The Steelers have allowed the fewest yards per game and the Jets have allowed the fewest points. The Jets are coming off their sixth game this season in which they blanked an opponent in the second half. However, the Jets haven't had much success in Pittsburgh. They are 0-5 as visitors and 2-14 overall.

"Our teams knows since we've been here four years, we're 1-1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers period," said Jets coach Herm Edwards, who guided his team to a 6-0 win over the Steelers last season in the New York snow.

"We're 1-1. That's the truth," he said. "I can't take credit for what somebody else did."


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