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Steelers Kick Off Two-Night NFL Orgy

We’re in the middle of a two-day festival for all who prefer their football after dark. Pittsburgh edged Baltimore in another of their perennial street-fights Sunday, and the Jets and Patriots will renew hostilities Monday: two divisional battles, four teams in first-place ties with a combined record of 34-10, very possibly the four best teams in the NFL in consecutive prime-time showcases.

The Ravens and Steelers define smashmouth football – though with Haloti Ngata’s first-quarter hit on Ben Roethlisberger, the smashing went just a bit higher. On a cold and windy night in Baltimore, these two nasty rivals took turns belting and frustrating each other, as they’ve been doing for the last decade.

It was a game where the marquee names were Harrison and Farrior and Polamalu, Lewis and Suggs – defense in charge, no pretty boys need apply. The one exception was Steelers quarterback Roethlisberger, but with the dogleg left introduced into the line of his septum, he hardly counts as pretty. 

The Ravens held Pittsburgh scoreless in the first half, taking a 7-0 lead on an 11-play, 92-yard drive highlighted by a big play on third-and-15 from their own 3. Ray Rice picked up a blitzing Troy Polamalu, giving Joe Flacco time to hit Anquan Boldin up the middle for 61 yards. Flacco finished the drive with a 14-yarder to Boldin, and Baltimore only managed a field goal for the rest of the game.

Roethlisberger demonstrated his toughness with his quick return from the broken proboscis, and his strength and fast thinking on the Steelers’ winning touchdown drive when he broke out of the grasp of Terrell Suggs, fended him off as he squirmed out to his left, and flung a backhanded toss past the line of scrimmage to the sidelines, avoiding a sack. Two plays later, he hit reserve running back Isaac Redman in the middle, who broke two tackles to get into the end zone. 

The critical play was, of course, a big defensive one, made, of course, by Polamalu. On second-and-5 from their own 43, leading 10-6 with three and a half minutes to go, the Ravens let the blitzing safety come in untouched on Flacco’s blind side; the ball bounced free, and LaMarr Woodley recovered and rumbled to the 9, triggering Pittsburgh’s only touchdown. 

The banged-up Steelers now have a full-game lead in the AFC North and the same edge in the first tiebreaker, a team’s record within the division. If the Ravens, a popular Super Bowl pick, are going to get through the AFC playoffs, they’ll probably have to do it on the road.

The Monday night game between the Jets and Patriots will be a little less neanderthal than the Sunday night matchup. The New Yorkers have a tough defense, but Bill Belichick’s teams have a way of defusing pure physical aggression. Tom Brady has been rejuvenated with the Pats’ return to the bite-sized offense of their three Super Bowl wins. He has weapons all over the field, and their lack of a home-run receiver since the trade of Randy Moss will reduce the importance of cover corner Darrelle Revis. 

The biggest setback for the Jets might be the loss of Jim Leonhard to a broken shin suffered in practice. Leonhard is a vital tone-setter for the defense, freewheeling in the middle where Brady figures to attack, particularly with his rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. The Jets will have to step up the attack in return, bringing pressure from the outside to try to keep the tight ends and backs occupied.

The chess game continues when the Jets have the ball. Mark Sanchez was outstanding when the two teams met in the second week of the season, 21-of-30 with three TDs and no interceptions. The Pats will give him a variety of looks, few of which he saw the first time around. 

Both teams have had 11 days to prepare for this one; it will be a battle of brain trusts as much as a physical confrontation. Belichick’s team hasn’t been swept in a season since 2000. The prediction here is that the streak stays intact. Patriots 23, Jets 13.

Jeff Neuman is a sportswriter and editor, and co-author of A Disorderly Compendium of Golf. His columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday.

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