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Steelers Are Cream of the Crop

What sort of team takes out two undefeated opponents, the consensus class of the NFL, on consecutive midseason Sundays?

The ghosts of George Halas’ Bears?

The clones of Vince Lombardi’s Packers?

How about this concoction: Rookie quarterback from Miami of Ohio, downgraded in the draft because he didn’t play enough “top-flight” competition, plus ancient running back relegated mostly to goal-line situations at this point in his much-contused career, plus a team that last year finished 6-10.

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Ladies and gentlemen, these are your 7-1 champions of the first half of the 2004 NFL regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers!

If the season ended today, the Steelers would be champions of professional football. They beat the 6-0 New England Patriots one week. They beat the 7-0 Philadelphia Eagles the next. They took on the best in the AFC and the best in the NFC and outscored them by a combined margin of 61-23 and outrushed them by a cumulative total of 473 net yards to 28.

That’s it, then. Ben Roethlisberger, looking like the second coming of Dan Marino, is 6-0 as an NFL starter. Jerome Bettis, looking like the second coming of Jerome Bettis, rushed for 149 yards in Sunday’s 27-3 blitz of the Eagles. The Steelers are 7-1 for the first time since their Super Bowl years of the 1970s.

What more do they have to prove?

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What more do they have to do?

Answer: Play the second half of the schedule.

If the season ended today, a lot of season-ticket holders would be steamed. CBS and Fox would have a lot of dead time to fill. If the season ended today, what on Earth would American families do on Thanksgiving? Talk to one another?

There’s a reason Super Bowl champions are not crowned in November -- a reason that has to make Marty Schottenheimer and his 6-3 San Diego Chargers, who have been down this road more than once, more than a little uneasy. Taking too much for granted during the halftime break can only lead to trouble, as we learned at the last Super Bowl.

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Speaking of wardrobe malfunctions, the Cincinnati Bengals actually stepped on to the playing field against the Dallas Cowboys wearing neon orange jerseys that looked as if they’d been found in a prison laundry room. Not only that, the Bengals won, 26-3, while impersonating Reese’s peanut butter cups. So now the Bengals probably think those shirts are lucky. For the players, there’s no way out. Already, plans are in place to force them to wear them again.

The Steelers have a lot of people excited because they swept the Patriots and the Eagles. It’s an impressive feat, any way you want to look at it. Now, let’s see them do it again. Because if the Steelers are to close out their quick start with a championship, they probably need to run the same gantlet again in a couple of months -- New England in the AFC championship game, Philadelphia in the Super Bowl.

And, it can’t be overlooked: The Steelers played the Patriots and the Eagles at home. Right now, the Steelers have the AFC’s home-field advantage -- and if they’ve studied New England’s recent playoff history, they had better make sure they hold on to it.

The Patriots won their first Super Bowl because Oakland couldn’t handle the snow -- and a bone-chilling made-for-TV night-time kickoff -- in Foxboro, Mass., during the playoffs. The Patriots won their second Super Bowl when Peyton Manning, uprooted from the climate-controlled RCA Dome, froze on the road in the AFC title game.

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Unlike the Raiders and the Indianapolis Colts, the Steelers know how to win in the cold. But winning in the cold, in New England, in late January is an assignment Bill Cowher probably wants Roethlisberger to avoid.

Still, the first half of the regular season has taught us some things. Such as:

* Hall of Fame reputations are just that. Joe Gibbs, who is already in the Hall, and Bill Parcells, who is headed there, are a combined 6-10.

Gibbs is 3-5 in his second stint with the Washington Redskins -- and he needed 147 yards from Clinton Portis on Sunday, and a 17-10 win at Detroit, which has forgotten how to win at home now that the Lions have remembered how to win on the road, to get there. Parcells is also 3-5 after watching his Cowboys lose by 23 points to Bengals.

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“That’s about as bad as you can get,” Parcells told reporters in Cincinnati, and, really, what more needs to be said?

Meanwhile, Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, both on the Canton waiting list, find themselves in strange places. Now a Seattle Seahawk, Rice caught one pass for five yards in his new team’s 42-27 victory over his old team, the San Francisco 49ers. In between, Rice had his NFL record for most consecutive games with at least once reception end while with the Oakland Raiders, which is one reason he now plays for Seattle.

Brown, now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, did not catch a pass in Tampa Bay’s 34-31 victory over Kansas City, ending his own consecutive-games-with-a-reception streak at 179.

* The Chargers won’t draft first this time. Amid projections of 0-16, the Chargers are 6-3 after their 43-17 rout of the New Orleans Saints. What’s that rumbling in the distance? The “Schottenheimer for Coach of the Year” bandwagon?

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Cowher has the inside track, but stranger things have happened. Drew Brees passing for nine touchdowns in two games, for instance. Or Brees and Denver’s Jake Plummer combining to pass for 17 touchdowns during the last two weeks, that’s another. Yes. It actually happened in 2004.

* Super Bowl losers don’t bounce back. Carolina, last season’s Super Bowl runner-up, is 1-7 after a 27-24 loss to Oakland, which lost the Super Bowl before that one and went 4-12 the following season. Since Buffalo’s string of four consecutive Super Bowl defeats in the early ‘90s, no Super Bowl loser has advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs the following season.

Super Bowl or bust? That has been the way of life in this league for the last decade, something to drive the Steelers during the weeks that remain on their schedule.


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