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Steelers, Bears ride D

Nov 6, 2001 3:42 AM

As usual, this NFL season has been full of surprises, both good and bad.

Original franchises like the Steelers and Bears have been reborn thanks to old-fashioned hard-nosed football.

Meanwhile teams that have been among the league’s playoff contenders over the last few seasons, like the Lions and the Titans, have fallen on hard times. Even last year’s Super Bowl squads, the Ravens and Giants, are facing some serious concerns.

In Pittsburgh, the Steelers have a new stadium and sit atop the AFC Central. Head coach Bill Cowher has done a magnificent job disguising a shaky secondary with strong play from his linebackers and defensive linemen, holding opponents to less than 11 points per game, heading into this weekend’s game against the Ravens.

The Steelers still have some questions on offense, but Kordell Stewart played a strong game against the Titans a couple of weeks ago. Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward and Troy Edwards give Pittsburgh some talented young receivers. Of course, the strength of the Steelers’ offense has been the line play and tailback Jerome Bettis. The running game, along with the ability to stop the run on defense, makes the Steelers a legitimate playoff contender.

The most pleasant surprise in the NFC has been the Bears. They have claimed their success in basically the same way the Steelers have, running the ball and playing great defense. Early returns have proved the Bears had one of the best drafts in the league. Top pick, wide receiver David Terrell made two big touchdown catches in Chicago’s big win over the 49ers and running back Anthony Thomas is the team’s leading rusher, averaging almost six yards per carry at the time of this writing.

However, it’s on the defensive side of the ball that the Bears have really shined. They’ve given up the fewest points in the conference, second only to the Steelers in the entire league, going into this weekend’s games. Brian Urlacher is steadily becoming the best linebacker in the league not named Ray Lewis. As long as the Bears stay healthy, they should be able to consistently stop the run.

The schedule may cause Chicago some problems as the season wears on. They have played just one game in their division so far this season, so they still have to play seven very rough games against teams that know them very well, four of them on the road.

One of those division rivals that still have to meet the Bears twice this season is the Lions, probably the most disappointing teams in the league. After bringing in new team president Matt Millen and new head coach Marty Mornhinweg, the Lions were hoping for big things, or at least a repeat of last year’s 9-7 record. Instead, the Lions were the only winless team in the league at the time of this writing.

Injuries have taken their toll, as wide receivers Germaine Crowell and Herman Moore are both done for the season and running back James Stewart continues to nurse a bad ankle. Unfortunately, injuries aren’t the only problem for the Lions. They have been unsettled at quarterback all season and are allowing almost 30 points per game defensively. Last season the defense held opponents to about 19 points per contest.

More like Titan-ic

A number of teams in the AFC are off to bad starts, including the Bills, Chiefs and Jaguars, but none of those teams were truly expected to be a Super Bowl contender.

One team that certainly was considered a contender to get to New Orleans was the Titans, but Tennessee has gotten off to a terrible 2-4 start heading into this game against Jacksonville, also 2-4. Not much has gone well for Tennessee this season. Injuries on the defensive side of the ball, especially in the secondary, have destroyed Jeff Fischer’s unit.

The Titans allowed just 13 points per game last season, but they’ve allowed double that so far this season, an incredible drop-off from a team that’s had such great success over the last few seasons. Another problem for the Titans has been the lack of production from Eddie George. Quarterback Steve McNair cannot carry the team with his arm, and needs support from George if Tennessee is to dig itself out of an early-season hole.

Even last year’s best teams aren’t immune from a drop in play. Both the Ravens and the Giants have looked very human so far. The problems the Ravens have are easy to pinpoint. They are still breaking in a new quarterback, Elvis Grbac, and are missing their starting halfback, Jamal Lewis.

The Ravens are also the champs this year, so teams are playing with reckless abandon against them. Baltimore fans shouldn’t worry too much, though. Baltimore showed it can win on the road in the playoffs last year, and should score more points as the season goes on and Grbac becomes more comfortable in the offensive system.

Giant break in sked

The best thing the Giants have going for them is the fact that they play in the worst division in the league and still have a number of games left against the Cardinals and Cowboys.

After a strong performance offensively last season, the Giants have had trouble moving the ball consistently and scoring when they get in position. Like the Ravens, the Giants have a great defense, and are able to stay in every game. If Kerry Collins heats up a bit, the Giants should be able to reach the playoffs again this season.

There is still a long way to go, as we’re not even halfway through the schedule, and any number of things could still happen. That’s why the NFL is the most popular sports league in the country, as well as the most exciting.

Future Monday Night NFL Schedule

Here are the rest of the Monday Night Football games scheduled to be shown on ABC at 6 p.m. PT.

November 12 Baltimore at Tennessee
November 19 N.Y. Giants at Minnesota
November 26 Tampa Bay at St. Louis
December 3 Green Bay at Jacksonville
December 10 Indianapolis at Miami
December 17 St. Louis at New Orleans
December 24, 31 No games scheduled
January 7, 2002 Minnesota at Baltimore