The National Football League's biggest battle this week will take place in the half-empty Houston Astrodome, where the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-1) will be fighting to stay ahead of the Oilers (4-2) in the AFC Central Division.
But the real test for both teams will be to stay focused on football and avoid the fisticuffs, foul language and filthy play that marred their meeting three weeks ago in Pittsburgh. The Steelers won the game, 30-16. Three players were ejected, 12 were fined a total of $53,000, and 23 others face $92,000 in fines if they fight again this season. According to reports out of Pittsburgh, the trash talk already has started for this week's rematch.
Assuming that the rough stuff will balance out, let's concentrate on the numbers.
The Steelers are 1-1 on the road. The Oilers are 1-1 at home. Both teams are 3-1 in their division. Both have scored 131 points. Both are 5-1 against the point spread.
The Oilers have given up 130 points, while the Steelers have yielded a mere 80. The Steelers are 0-1 against the spread as road favorites (their opening-day loss at Jacksonville). The Oilers are 1-0 against the spread as home underdogs (their opening-day 20-19 loss to Kansas City as 4 1/2 -point underdogs).
Both teams are proficient running the ball. The Steelers' Jerome Bettis has five consecutive 100-yard rushing games. Oilers rookie Eddie George has three 100-yard games.
Oilers quarterback Chris Chandler is rated No. 2 in the AFC. The Steelers' Mike Tomczak is eighth. Chandler has 10 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. Tomczak has five TD passes and six interceptions.
The Oilers' apparent edge at quarterback is clouded by the groin strain that sidelined Chandler in last week's win over Atlanta. He remains questionable for this week. His backup is Steve McNair. Chandler's absence or impaired ability will make the difference between victory and defeat for the Oilers. Go with the Steelers, give the two points, and may the baddest team win.
Cincinnati quarterback Jeff Blake was sacked 10 times by the Steelers last week. This week, he puts his bruised and battered body on the line against the punishing defense of the 49ers in San Francisco. The 49ers have won all three home games this season by wide margins. The Bengals are 0-3 on the road.
For such a bad team, the Bengals have a very difficult schedule. The 49ers are sure to bounce back strong from that overtime loss in Green Bay, a game the coaches and players feel they should have won. Don't let that 14 1/2 -point line scare you away. The 49ers have outscored their opponents at home, 100-28, this season.
Best of the rest
Every team looks forward to playing the Jets. For Jim Kelly and the Bills, this is more than a football game. It's the moment of truth. The future is now. There's no tomorrow. Pick your own cliche. Then pick the Bills. They are 4-2 and can beat the Jets by more than 7 1/2 points. . . . The amazing Denver Broncos, leading the AFC in both offense and defense, return to action after a bye week. They are 3-0 at home. Their opponents, the Baltimore Ravens, don't fly very high on the road (0-3). Ride the Broncos and don't let that 10-point spread deter you. . . . Carolina stays home to play New Orleans in what should be another NFC mismatch. The Panthers are 3-0 at home and 4-0 in their division. The Saints are 0-3 on the road and 0-2 in the division. The Panthers will chew up that 7-point spread. . . . Monday night finds Oakland at San Diego. The Chargers had a week to shake off their loss in Denver and will put an end to the Raiders' two-game winning streak. The Chargers beat the Raiders in Oakland, 40-34, a month ago. Take the Chargers. Give the 3 1/2 points.