- Ashley Fox
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Leave it to Terrell Suggs to set the table for Sunday night's game between Baltimore and Pittsburgh: "It's when you can taste the blood in your mouth that you know it's on," Suggs said.
It's on, indeed, with or without Ben Roethlisberger.
Steelers-Ravens has become one of the NFL's marquee matchups. The teams don't like each other because they are similar, built historically on defense, with tough quarterbacks and good running games. It is smashmouth football at its finest. Or, as Suggs put it, "the most heated rivalry in sports, next to Heat-Celtics."
"This game," Suggs said, "sends a shock wave through the NFL."
Forgive him the hyperbole. It is a monster game for both teams. Always is.
Since the Steelers drafted Roethlisberger in 2004, the series is knotted 9-9, including two playoff wins by Pittsburgh. But four of Pittsburgh's losses came when Roethlisberger was sidelined, either by injury, suspension or the coach's decision.
Roethlisberger had a knee injury in 2005 and missed the Steelers' Week 11 loss. He sat out the Week 17 loss in 2007, a game that ended the Brian Billick era in Baltimore, which gave way to John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco. Roethlisberger missed a Week 12 overtime loss in 2009 because of a concussion, and in Week 4 of 2010 he sat out for the final game of a four-game suspension.
Those four losses epitomized how valuable Roethlisberger is to the Steelers. Three of the games were decided by a field goal, the other by six points. These games are typically close and often low-scoring. Mistakes matter.
It's not that Roethlisberger always plays lights-out against the Ravens. He has a career completion percentage of 63.4, but for his career against Baltimore he has completed 56.5 percent of his passes, and since 2008, when Harbaugh and Flacco joined the Ravens, that percentage drops to 54.7. But the only games in that stretch in which Roethlisberger was the quarterback and the Steelers lost came last season: a 35-7 defeat at Baltimore in Week 1 and a 23-20 loss in Pittsburgh in Week 9.
Told on Wednesday that the Ravens are disappointed he will be sidelined with an injured rib and shoulder, Roethlisberger said, "I'm disappointed I'm not playing, too. It's tough, especially playing these guys."
And especially considering this is the first of two meetings in the next three weeks. These are games that should decide the division, playoff seeding and potentially a first-round bye or at least home-field advantage for one postseason game. At 7-2, the Ravens have a one-game lead over Pittsburgh, but there's plenty of time for that to change.
Pittsburgh now turns to Byron Leftwich to try to do what Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon and Tommy Maddox couldn't: Lead the Steelers to a win over Baltimore in Roethlisberger's stead. Leftwich, 32, hasn't won a game he started since Week 5 of the 2006 season, when he was in Jacksonville. He is 0-6 since in short tenures in Atlanta and Tampa Bay.
Leftwich is on his second stint with the Steelers, and he isn't under any illusions.
"I understand that in this situation nobody is probably giving us a shot, and that's understandable," Leftwich said. "Any time you lose a quarterback like Ben, let's be honest, I think he was playing on an MVP level. I think he's an elite quarterback in this league, and he's down. We all understand that. We all understand everybody's opinion and how they feel about the situation. But we're going to have to play the game Sunday night, and we'll see what happens. There's no need for me to think about what-ifs."
Like, what if the Steelers drop these two games against Baltimore? What if they somehow can't get to 10 wins against a schedule that includes two games against Cleveland, Cincinnati and San Diego at home and at Dallas? What if, despite starting 6-3, the Steelers miss the playoffs in a season when the AFC is down?
No, there's no reason to talk about what-ifs.
"We're just trying to score one more point than those guys," Leftwich said. "That's all that really matters."
When he tastes the blood in his mouth, Leftwich will know it is game -- and rivalry -- on.
There was an interesting Twitter debate earlier this week between NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert and AFC West blogger Bill Williamson about who should win NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Seifert took Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. Williamson took Denver quarterback Peyton Manning. Both players are coming back from serious injuries. Both are having career years. Both are deserving.
But which player will win it? Look at their teams' upcoming schedules.
Starting this week against Chicago, five of the Vikings' remaining six games are against teams that rank in the top 10 in rushing defense. Minnesota gets the Bears (No. 4) twice, Green Bay (No. 10) twice, Houston (No. 3) and St. Louis (No. 18). Five of the Broncos' seven remaining games are against teams in the lower half of the league in pass defense, including Cleveland (No. 22), Oakland (No. 24), Baltimore (No. 26) and Tampa Bay (No. 32). Only Kansas City, which Denver plays twice, ranks higher than 17th; the Chiefs are eighth against the pass.
So it is reasonable to speculate that Manning will have an easier time continuing to play at a high level, barring injury. There are plenty of factors voters will consider. Manning missed an entire year after having four neck surgeries. Peterson came back in unprecedented fashion just 260 days after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. Manning switched teams. As a running back, Peterson absorbs way more contact. The Broncos are 6-3 with a two-game lead in their division. The Vikings are 6-4 when few thought they'd emerge out of the NFC North cellar.
There won't be a split vote. Peterson already has surpassed his goal of rushing for 1,000 yards, and he is on pace for a career-high 1,804 yards. His comeback has been amazing. But Manning missed an entire season and has returned to pre-injury form. If his stellar performances continue, he will win the award and might take home his fifth league MVP award, too.
• • •
We've reached the point in the season when significant injuries to significant players typically begin to mount. It happened last season. In Week 10, Houston quarterback Matt Schaub suffered a Lisfranc injury to his right foot, sidelining him for the season. The Texans were 7-3 at the time, and finished 3-3. Third-string quarterback T.J. Yates was forced to start after backup Matt Leinart was hurt in Week 11. Also in Week 11, Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler broke his right thumb. The Bears were 7-3 and had won five straight games, but finished the season 1-5 and missed the playoffs.
This week, potentially four starting quarterbacks will be sidelined by injuries suffered in Week 10. Philadelphia's Michael Vick (concussion) and Roethlisberger are definitely out. Cutler (concussion) might be out. San Francisco's Alex Smith (concussion) sounds like he might start Monday night against the Bears.
Over the first 10 weeks of the season, only three Week 1 starting quarterbacks have missed time: Arizona's John Skelton, Kansas City's Matt Cassel and Tennessee's Jake Locker. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, not since Week 15 of the 2007 season have four or more quarterbacks made their first start of the season in Week 11 or later, as Chicago's Jason Campbell, Leftwich, Philadelphia's Nick Foles and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick might do this week.
• • •
Rex Ryan scanned the packed press room at the Jets' practice facility on Wednesday and quipped, "More people in here today for some reason."
Yes, a big reason. In Wednesday's edition of the New York Daily News, more than 12 players and team personnel ripped Tim Tebow for being, as one anonymous source said, "terrible" and ill-equipped to be the team's starting quarterback. Players on both sides of the ball said he has not improved during his brief time with the Jets. Only one player, guard Matt Slauson, put his name to his comments -- which he later said were from earlier this season. He said the team has only one legitimate backup quarterback, "Greg [McElroy] ... and we have an athlete." The rest of the quotes, except for an innocuous one from defensive lineman Mike DeVito, were anonymous.
Sometimes the only way for journalists to get people to tell the truth is to grant them anonymity. It should always be a journalist's last resort because comments, particularly harsh and biting ones, mean more when there is a name associated with them. If you're going to say something negative about a teammate, own it. Don't hide.
"I think it's a cowardly thing," Ryan said. "If you're not going to put your name to it, that's as cowardly as you can get."
It is. If someone wants to rip Tebow for being a lousy practice player, go ahead. It's not a secret. If someone wants to support Sanchez, who has the league's worst completion percentage and the most red zone interceptions, fine. But be a man and put a name to it.
• • •
Losing to New Orleans last week was probably the best thing that's happened to Atlanta lately. The loss ended any talk of an undefeated season. Going into the game, Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said he thought Atlanta could run the table. Now that distraction is over. No more talk. Just play.
Of the Falcons' remaining seven games, four are at home, where the team is 30-4 with Matt Ryan as quarterback. Three are against teams with winning records -- Tampa Bay twice and the New York Giants. One is against New Orleans, which has won seven of nine against Atlanta since Mike Smith became the coach.
Atlanta's remaining opponents have a 30-34 combined record. The opportunity is there for the Falcons to finish strong, something Smith constantly preaches, and win home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. If they do that, putting themselves in prime position finally to win a playoff game under Smith and Ryan, no one will care that a potential undefeated season ended in New Orleans.
• • •
There could be mass turnover in the coaching ranks this offseason -- if not sooner -- so inevitably the names of past Super Bowl winners will be linked to jobs. Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher and Tony Dungy are three of the most popular.
But each man has a comfortable, well-paying television job that, while not to diminish their analytical and broadcast skills, is considerably less stressful than coaching. They've got plenty of money in the bank.
Sometimes coaches rekindle their love for the game after a few years away from it. Sometimes, they lose their edge and don't have the desire to grind through an extremely demanding job that requires endless hours of work and focus.
Cowher is 55 years old and nearly six years removed from coaching. Dungy is 57 and hasn't coached since 2009. Gruden is the wild card. He is a football coach who happens to be an analyst. He is 49. Not every job would suit him, but there might be the right fit to lure him back into coaching. He would be the only one of the three.
In his size and the way he moves in the pocket always looking to throw downfield, Andrew Luck reminds Greg Cosell of Ben Roethlisberger. It is not a strict comparison, but a telling one.
Cosell is the executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup" show and has watched film of all of Luck's games this season. Two things stand out about Indianapolis' rookie quarterback.
"He's really good before the ball is snapped, which is very rare for a rookie quarterback," Cosell said. "I can remember plays against Miami a few weeks ago. Miami would line up double A gap, and he would call [Indianapolis tight end] Dwayne Allen into the backfield to make sure he had that picked up. He's incredibly aware, and you just don't normally see rookie quarterbacks involved in protection before the snap of the ball.
"No. 2, I think that his pocket movement is outstanding, and there's a difference between pocket movement and running outside the pocket. Pocket movement is a far more necessary attribute to be a high-level quarterback. He has a good feel for moving in an area the size of a boxing ring. It is critical to maintain downfield focus, feel the rush and never look at it, maintain good ball position and balance below your waist so you are always in position to deliver the football. He's really good at that. Most people assume guys that are athletic are good at pocket movement. Pocket movement is not a function of great athleticism. Tom Brady is really good at it. Michael Vick is not."
On Sunday, Luck will face Brady and a New England defense that, according to Cosell's research, has blitzed only 55 percent of the time in passing situations. The Patriots rank 29th in the NFL in passing defense, allowing 285.3 yards per game, and they are tied for 16th with 20.0 sacks. They lack team speed on defense, Cosell said, particularly in the back seven.
"I would expect Indianapolis to move the ball in this game," Cosell said.
STATS & INFO
There is a formula that has held true two of the past three years and confirms, without a doubt, that ultimate success in the National Football League is predicated on quarterback play.
In 2008, ESPN began tracking Total QBR, a 100-point rating system that takes into consideration a quarterback's entire performance and impact on a team's win or loss. In two of the past three seasons, the team with the largest differential between its Total QBR rating and its defensive Total QBR rating has gone on to win the Super Bowl. New Orleans did it in 2009 with the highest QBR differential over a full season (44.5) and Green Bay did it in 2010 (33.3). The Giants last season were the anomaly, finishing 18th with a Total QBR differential of 1.2.
So consider this from ESPN Stats & Information: Through nine games this season, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning leads the league with an 84.3 Total QBR and the Broncos have the third-best defensive Total QBR at 32.0, giving them a differential of plus-52.3 points. Over the course of an entire season, that would be a record.
Are the Broncos, 6-3 heading into their home game Sunday against San Diego, going to the Super Bowl? Time will tell, but they are employing a formula that has won championships in the past.
The players' day off edition.
"Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers... Wife and baby are doing great."
-- Charles Tillman (@peanuttillman) November 13, 2012
Bears cornerback Charles Tillman and his wife, Jackie, welcomed their fourth child earlier this week on a day in which the Bears were not playing.
"Spend half my day-off at work getting better now I'm home with a few redbulls and the new Call Of Duty! #unstoppable"
-- Jimmy Graham (@TheJimmyGraham) Nov. 13, 2012
To be young, single ... and New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham.
"Gotta get to a 100k followers some way"
-- Demaryius Thomas (@DemaryiusT) November 13, 2012
Hook Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas up. As of his Tuesday afternoon tweet, he had just north of 62,000 followers.
All games Sunday unless otherwise noted. All times ET.
Cincinnati (4-5) at Kansas City (1-8), 1 p.m.
The Chiefs have averaged 13 points a game during their six-game losing streak. But they've now led a game, so there's that. Bengals 27, Chiefs 14.
Philadelphia (3-6) at Washington (3-6), 1 p.m.
The Redskins have lost nine of their past 10 games at home and are playing for next season, but they're playing a team that has quit. Redskins 17, Eagles 13.
Jacksonville (1-8) at Houston (8-1), 1 p.m.
The Texans look like the most complete team in football. The Jaguars? The opposite. Texans 41, Jaguars 12.
New York Jets (3-6) at St. Louis (3-5-1), 1 p.m.
Mark Sanchez has been awful, but Rex Ryan is sticking with him. The Jets are 3-10 in their past 13 road games. Rams 17, Jets 13.
Cleveland (2-7) at Dallas (4-5)
This is a trap game for the Cowboys, who are chasing the Giants and gaining ground. They can take another step, if they don't overlook the Browns. Cowboys 20, Browns 14.
Tampa Bay (5-4) at Carolina (2-7), 1 p.m.
Should Greg Schiano be in the coach of the year conversation? Absolutely. Buccaneers 31, Panthers 21.
Green Bay (6-3) at Detroit (4-5)
What's wrong with Aaron Rodgers? Nothing, actually. Since his early-season slump, Rodgers has thrown 15 touchdowns and one interception in his past four games, all Green Bay wins. Packers 35, Lions 24.
Arizona (4-5) at Atlanta (8-1), 1 p.m.
The Falcons lost one game on the road against their division rival, and suddenly they're a joke? Don't think so. And they hardly ever lose at home. Falcons 28, Cardinals 16.
New Orleans (4-5) at Oakland (3-6), 4:05 p.m.
Pay attention: The Saints are making a run. Their defense can't stop anybody, but the offense is potent. It is not a playoff-winning recipe, but it could get them to the dance. Saints 35, Raiders 17.
Indianapolis (6-3) at New England (6-3), 4:25 p.m.
The annual game of the year looks different, but with Andrew Luck in the equation, it hasn't lost its flash. Are the Colts for real? This is an opportunity to find out. Patriots 42, Colts 21.
San Diego (4-5) at Denver (6-3), 4:25 p.m.
Think the Chargers have forgotten about that 35-point, second-half beatdown the Broncos put on them in Week 6? Think again. They'll never forget that. Broncos 31, Chargers 17.
Baltimore (7-2) at Pittsburgh (6-3), 8:20 p.m.
Remember, it is tough to win at Heinz Field, with or without Ben Roethlisberger. Tougher without. Ravens 28, Steelers 17.
Chicago (7-2) at San Francisco (6-2-1), 8:30 p.m. Monday
This could be the battle of the backups. Who is better, Colin Kaepernick or Jason Campbell? They'll get no breaks from the opposing defenses. 49ers 21, Bears 20.
Idle: Minnesota, New York Giants, Seattle, Tennessee.
Last week: 8-5. Season: 87-50.
14hESPN Stats & Information
1dEric D. Williams