Pointspread doesn't add up

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> Since he could be one of the central offensive figures for the Steelers in today's 1 o'clock game at Buffalo against the Bills, Verron Haynes was mobbed by reporters when the locker room opened for business on Wednesday.

His eyes began to glaze over as fresh waves of reporters began to repeat questions. But one question made Haynes' eyes pop.

Are you surprised the Steelers are 9-point underdogs?

"Are we?" Haynes asked in astonishment. He took a moment to gather his thoughts.

"That's interesting," he said. "Well, we also weren't supposed to have the record we have. So we still have to go out there and work and prove people wrong."

At 14-1, with the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Steelers still have to prove themselves, particularly players like Haynes, a back-up who figures to see more playing time than usual. But Haynes made a good point when he said, "we've been faced with having to prove ourselves all year, so this is just another game."

The Steelers will play plenty of back-ups, but they have all year.

Tommy Maddox will play quarterback, but he's the former starter.

The reverse is true for Jerome Bettis. He was the back-up, but in all likelihood became the starter during his recent stint as a replacement. Duce Staley must re-prove himself against the Bills.

Another returnee, Kendrell Bell, might play more inside linebacker to give Larry Foote a break.

Willie Williams hasn't lost his job back to Chad Scott, but Scott returns to give Deshea Townsend a couple of weeks to allow his broken fingers to heal.

Plaxico Burress will probably rest his hamstring, giving way to Antwaan Randle El again.

Haynes may even be given a break as the third-down back so that Willie Parker receives another chance to flash his 4.3 speed.

Anyone else need a break?

If Oliver Ross sits down he may never come back, if rookie third-round tackle Max Starks has anything to say about it.

Clark Haggans will again watch James Harrison wreak havoc as the left outside linebacker.

Anyone else want to play roulette with his job?

It's unlikely. That's why Las Vegas' stance on this game is so peculiar. The reserves have played well all season.

The significant downgrade will be at quarterback, where Maddox, the 14-14-1 former starter, replaces 13-0 rookie Ben Roethlisberger.

But Maddox has a firm grasp of the offense, and an even firmer grasp on the Bills, who've won nine of 11 games. They opened the season 0-4 for new coach and former Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.

"They're playing with a lot of confidence and they're on a roll," Maddox said. "Teams that are peaking at the right time going into the playoffs are tough, so it'd be nice to keep them out of the playoffs."

The red-hot Bills need to beat the Steelers, but need help to make the playoffs. The Bills would also need either a Denver loss to visiting Indianapolis or a New York Jets loss at St. Louis.

If the Bills make the playoffs, and win their first-round game, they would likely be the Steelers' first playoff opponent two weeks from now.

The Bills have won six in a row for the first time since 1990 and have scored more than 30 points in each game.

They're averaging 38 points per game in that stretch, and much of the credit rests with an improved offensive line and the running of Willis McGahee.

McGahee was team president Tom Donahoe's controversial first-round draft pick in 2003. He couldn't play last year because of an ACL injury, but since he became the starter this year the Bills are 9-1.

McGahee played with a hyperextended knee last week and gained over 100 yards for the seventh time. He has 1,049 yards (3.9 average) this the season.

The Bills also made extensive use of a no-huddle offense last week against the San Francisco 49ers and quarterback Drew Bledsoe completed 21 of 32 passes for 172 yards. The Bills used the offense on their first five drives and scored on four of them.

The Bills, like the Steelers, consider themselves a running team but have three fine wide receivers in Eric Moulds (84-1006-5), rookie Lee Evans (46-780-9) and slot man Jake Reed (16-153-0).

Defensively, the Bills are second in the NFL in points allowed and third in yards allowed. The Steelers are third and first, respectively, but the Bills are hotter. In their last three games, while allowing a solid 3.6 yards per rush, they've allowed a shocking 2.8 yards per pass attempt. That's almost as eye-popping a number as the pointspread.

Perhaps Maddox is right. Perhaps the Steelers need to eliminate the Bills before it's too late.

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