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Second Shot at Perfection

Times Staff Writer

If they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers today, the Philadelphia Eagles will be halfway to a perfect regular season. But to hear quarterback Donovan McNabb tell it, he and his teammates would be half-wits if they dwelt too long on that.

“You don’t win the Super Bowl, no one cares,” said McNabb, whose team has lost the last three NFC championship games. “No one cares who finished second.... If you don’t win the Super Bowl, it doesn’t matter what you did during the year.”

Being first at this point doesn’t mean you’ll last. In fact, in each of the last four seasons, the last undefeated team left standing -- as the 7-0 Eagles are -- made the playoffs but didn’t win the Super Bowl. The 2000 Vikings didn’t stroll away with the Lombardi Trophy despite their 7-0 start, and neither did the 6-0 Rams in 2001, the 4-0 Raiders in 2002, or the 9-0 Chiefs last season.

For the Steelers, meanwhile, beating their cross-state rival would not only help them hold on to their two-game lead in the AFC North but would ensure them of a spot in the history books. Fresh off a victory that ended New England’s 21-game winning streak, Pittsburgh is the first team in 70 years to play consecutive games against teams that were at least 6-0. No team has ever beaten undefeated teams consecutively this late in the season.

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Can the Steelers be giant slayers two weeks in a row?

Don’t count out rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has strung together four consecutive games with a passer rating exceeding 100, each better than the last. Pittsburgh delis already are naming sandwiches after Roethlisberger, who if he wins today will draw even with former Steeler quarterback Mike Kruczek for the best rookie starts in modern NFL history at 6-0.

“It was a little easier for me than it’s been for him,” said Kruczek, now quarterback coach for the Arizona Cardinals. “I’d just hand the ball off to Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris and we’d have a great chance of winning. These days, a lot more falls on the shoulders of the quarterback.”

Consider this: When Kruczek was on his record-setting run in 1976, he did not throw a touchdown pass in those six games. Roethlisberger, meanwhile, has thrown at least one touchdown pass in every game in which he has played, and he has seven completions of at least 30 yards, with at least one in each game.

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“Ben is doing a great job,” receiver Hines Ward told reporters this week. “He shows no rattle. He shows a lot of poise in the huddle.”

Kruczek, pronounced KROO-zek, loves the way Roethlisberger is playing. Still, he would be at least a little disappointed to see his record fall.

“Anybody would,” he said. “The only time I ever think about it is when this happens. I’d forgotten about it until people brought it to my attention. I thought the record had been broken.”

Tommy Maddox, the former Steeler starter who was sidelined by an elbow injury and wound up losing his job to Roethlisberger, returned to practice this week. He’s signed through the 2007 season, and has gracefully taken the emergence of the rookie in stride.

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“It’s obviously disappointing because you want to play,” he told reporters. “But in the same sense, you understand. The team is playing well, Ben is playing well. We’re on a roll, and that’s my main deal.”

At least Maddox will have a good vantage point from which to watch. Not surprisingly, Steelers-Eagles is the toughest ticket in town.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a $56 ticket in the midfield Section 211 for today’s game was being offered this week for as much as $1,690.

Lots of people are willing to shell out top dollar to see a meaningful game featuring some of the NFL’s biggest stars. Not the least of those playmakers is Philadelphia receiver Terrell Owens, who has nine touchdown catches, putting him just off the pace of Jerry Rice’s record-setting 22 in 1987.

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Maybe more entertaining than Owens’ spectacular grabs are his elaborate end-zone celebrations. Even the guys standing on the opposite sideline keep their eyes peeled for those.

“I love the things he does,” Steeler receiver Plaxico Burress told Pittsburgh reporters this week. “He’s creative. It’s almost to the point you want to see what he’s going to do next.”

Almost, but not quite.

“He can’t dance if he can’t get into the end zone,” safety Chris Hope said. “It’s our job to keep him out.”

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History could hang in the balance.


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