November 3, 2000

Season's Second Half Begins With Key Division Matchups

No more unbeatens. But a lot of teams close to it.

As the NFL begins the second half of its season this week, there are a good number of teams with a small number of losses.

Four - Minnesota, Oakland, St. Louis and Tennessee — have lost once. And four - Indianapolis, Miami, and the New York Giants and Jets - have lost twice.

"Everybody would love to be undefeated, but it didn't work out that way," says head coach Dennis Green of 7-1 Minnesota, who last Sunday became the last of the unbeatens to tumble.

Sure, it's fun having "perfect" teams. But it's maybe even more fun when everybody's bunched together, ready to mix it up for the final eight weeks.

Like starting this week. How about Chiefs-Raiders? Steelers-Titans? Or Vikings-Packers? Those division games, and more, are all on the Week 10 docket.

In Oakland, it's the renewal of one of the NFL's best rivalries, one whose last game was played only three weeks ago.

It's the 7-1 AFC West first-place Raiders hosting the 5-3 second-place Kansas City Chiefs.

It's a matchup of hot teams and hot quarterbacks.

The Raiders will seek a sixth consecutive win for the first time since 1985, and their first 8-1 start in a full season since '77. The Chiefs have won five of their past six. The last four meetings between these two original AFL franchises — whose first game ever 40 years ago was against each other (a 20-13 Chiefs preseason win on July 31, 1960 at San Francisco's Kezar Stadium) — have been decided by seven points or less.

Like the last one on October 15, when Oakland's rookie kicker Sebastian Janikowski nailed the 43-yard game-winner with 25 seconds left.

Both quarterbacks - Oakland's Rich Gannon and Kansas City's elvis Grbac — had outstanding games that day in Kansas City and basically have not stopped since.

Former-Chief Gannon threw for 244 yards and two touchdowns, and also rushed for 38 yards in bringing the Raiders back from a 10-point deficit for the 20-17 victory. He is the AFC's sixth-ranked passer (86.6).

"He's running sideways and throwing the ball 50 yards," says former teammate and Chiefs center Tim Grunhard of the still-spry, 34-year old-Gannon, the Raiders' third-leading rusher with 236 yards. "He really amazes me sometimes."

The same can be said for Grbac, who threw for 288 yards and two TDs in that game. This week, with one touchdown throw, he can break his tie with Chiefs Pro Football Hall of Famer Len Dawson (1964-65) with his 15th consecutive game with a TD pass.

"He's very competitive," says Chiefs head coach Gunther Cunningham. "I don't think people realize how tough he is. He's not some six-foot guy. He's about 6-5 and 240. He's strong."

A favorite target of Grbac? Another big guy - 6-4 Tony Gonzalez, who ties Jacksonville's Kyle Brady for most catches by a tight end (41) and leads the position in yards (572). With a 100-yard game, Gonzalez can become the first tight end in history with four consecutive 100-yarders.

In Nashville Sunday, two of the three hottest teams in the NFL meet when the Tennessee Titans (winners of seven consecutive games) host the AFC Central-rival Pittsburgh Steelers (five in a row with Oakland).

And if anybody proves out the old Churchillian axiom of "Never, ever give up," it's the Steelers.

Pittsburgh lost its first three games, including the opener by a shutout, and the third to the Titans. But a slow start is just that - a start, not the end.

What did the Steelers do next? Win their next five, and gain a second-place berth at 5-3. In those five, they have produced two shutouts and surrendered all of 22 points. And in that span, they have climbed from the AFC's 15th-ranked defense when they were 0-3 to the conference's second position now.

"I don't think we've played our best football yet," says Steelers linebacker Levon Kirkland. "But that's cool. We want to get better as we go. We want to be playing our best in January."

The game should be a nice matchup of big backs - the Steelers' Jerome Bettis (5-11, 250) and the Titans' Eddie George (6-3, 240). When the teams last met on September 24, Bettis had rushed for all of 130 yards in three games. In Pittsburgh's five-game win streak since, he has run for 563.

The Titans, coming off a 27-21 Monday-night win over Washington, are on an almost identical pace to the one they followed last season when they played in the Super Bowl.

Through eight games last year, they were also 7-1. They're averaging a 6.8-point advantage over opponents, compared to 7.4 through eight games last year. And they're rushing for 121.9 yards a game, close to the 130.4 they averaged in '99 - thanks in large part to George, the AFC's second-leading rusher (739 yards).

Even with those similarities, Titans head coach Jeff Fisher will keep on his team not to let up.

"We've got a tough stretch ahead of us," says Fisher of four division games in a row. "It doesn't get any easier."

In St. Louis Sunday night the Rams get the opportunity to once again add to their seemingly continuous offensive exploits.

When quarterback Kurt Warner went down with a broken finger in Week 8, the Rams plugged in Trent Green this past week and seemed not to miss a beat. Certainly running back Marshall Faulk did not. The NFL's scrimmage-yards leader (1,326) scored a 2000 league-high four touchdowns against San Francisco, two on rushes and two via Green passes. It was only the fifth time since 1970 that a player has scored two rushing and two receiving TDs in a game (Harvey Williams in 1997, and Chuck Foreman, Lydell Mitchell and O.J. Simpson in 1975).

This, after Faulk - the league's leading TD scorer with 14 — entered the game with a slight shoulder separation and a bone bruise in one knee. In his "younger" days, says the 27-year-old Faulk, these maladies would have kept him out.

"When I was young, if I got a nick, I'd sit out," he says. "But I figured out that true character is when you play. Anybody can play when they're 100 percent, or when they're feeling good. It's when you don't feel good and things aren't going well - can you get up in there and mix it up still, and maybe answer when your team is calling on you?"

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