Three of next four games critical to Steelers playoff hopes

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Three of the Steelers next four games are critical.

The Steelers, 5-2, will face the previous undefeated Denver Broncos, 6-1. Then comes the biggest game of the season, at home against the 5-2 Cincinnati Bengals. After what should be an easy game against the Kansas City Chiefs, 1-6, come the ramped up Baltimore Ravens, 4-3, who almost have to win all of their remaining games to stay in contention if the Steelers and Bengals continue to win. Which makes the head to head matchups critical.

With the Bengals and Steelers on a bye, the Ravens went out and took care of business against the Denver Broncos, easily handing them their first defeat, 30-7, as their defense went back to basics by keeping pressure on Bronco quarterback Kyle Orton while the defensive backs covered their wide receivers. Joe Flacco had another efficient game, going 20 of 25 for 175 yards and one touchdown. After a slow first half where the Ravens only had a 6-0 lead, they put Denver away, outscoring them 24-7. This now leads to a gigantic confrontation between the Ravens and Bengals in Cincinnati this weekend. If the Bengals win, they will remain in first, but if the Ravens win they will either be in a three-way tie for first or a two-way tie for second depending on what the Steelers do against the Broncos.

The ease in which the Ravens beat the Broncos exposes what many felt, that Denver has not played a tough schedule. The Steelers should extend their four-game winning streaks versus the Broncos, thus keeping them in first place in the AFC North. Because this is a Monday night game they will know the results of Sunday’s Bengals-Ravens game.

The Steelers have everyone back for this game even though Ryan Clark may not play because he has the sickle cell trait. It may not be safe for him to exert himself at Mile High Stadium. He will make his decision sometime this week.

Going into this game the Steelers are playing the best ball of the season. Ben Roethlisberger is in third place in yards passing with 2,062 behind Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning. Hines Ward is in fifth place in receiving yards with 602, trailing Chris Johnson from the Houston Texans with 697. The offense as a whole, even though it is much more diversified than in the past, still needs to start producing in the second half, the fourth quarter in particular.

The defense, led by James Harrison and Troy Palomalu is beginning to jell into where they were last season, the best in the NFL. They will be thoroughly tested the next four weeks. After the Broncos come the Bengals at Heinz Field, then after what should be an easy win over the Kansas City Chiefs, they face the Ravens in Baltimore. If they come through these games unscathed, the rest of the season is not that difficult. They play the Oakland Raiders, 2-6, the Cleveland Browns, 1-7, the Green Bay Packers 4-3, the Baltimore Ravens and the Miami Dolphins, 3-4. Even though the last three games could be tough only the Ravens have a team capable of defeating the Steelers.

With the three-way battle between the Steelers, Bengals and Ravens in the AFC North, this conference may only have one representative in the playoffs because of the losses they will be handing each other compared to easy conferences such as the AFC West. It will be very surprising if the Steelers don’t lose at least two more of their remaining nine games.

In other games of note last week: Vince Young got his first start since the first game of 2008 and led the Tennessee Titans to their first win of the season, a 30-13 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was 15 of 18 for 125 yards and one touchdown. Chris Johnson had 228 yards on 24 carries. Young was injured after the first game of the season last year, but because the Titans were winning, he never got back into the lineup despite going 18-12 in his first two seasons as a starter. It took a 0-6 record before he was given a chance again.

Donovan McNabb was 17 of 23 for 240 yards and three touchdowns as he led the Philadelphia Eagles 5-2 to a surprisingly easy 40-17 win over the New York Giants putting them into a tie for first place in the NFC East with the Dallas Cowboys.

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