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Anybody's game

With champs facing adversity, contenders step up

Posted: Monday September 4, 2006 10:13AM; Updated: Monday September 4, 2006 10:20PM
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Charlie Batch, who was 2-0 as a fill-in for Ben Roethlisberger last year, will start for the Steelers on Thursday night against the Dolphins.
Charlie Batch, who was 2-0 as a fill-in for Ben Roethlisberger last year, will start for the Steelers on Thursday night against the Dolphins.
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So now, as if the NFL's Opening Day storyline wasn't compelling enough, we've got a neat little us-against-the-world twist ... and it's the home team, the Super Bowl champs, who are certain to use it. With a Sunday night appendectomy continuing Ben Roethlisberger's preseason from hell, his stunning subtraction from Thursday night's season-opener against Miami has made the leadup to this game pretty interesting. The new angle: Can Charlie Batch step into this white-hot spotlight and win a football game he has no business playing in?

If Jerome Bettis knows Bill Cowher -- and we all know that he does -- this is what he thinks the Steelers' boss man will say when he gathers his team to tell them all is not lost because Roethlisberger won't play against Miami: "Men, we've been down this road before. We've won games when Ben was out and we can do it again. It's going to take everyone's best effort, but it's not anything you haven't done before. We can do it."

Cowher will say the Steelers are 4-2 with a benched Ben in the two years since he was drafted -- with the only two losses coming in overtime donnybrooks. He'll tell them, perhaps, that Batch defeated Brett Favre in Green Bay last year and beat the Browns at home before breaking a finger late in that game. Cowher won't turn this into any tremendous uphill battle, because he won't believe it is.

The same goes for Bettis, who will get about 17 ovations Thursday night when he enters Heinz Field -- this time as an NBC broadcaster, not as a locker-room leader who helped the Steelers win the Super Bowl last year. "If there's one benefit to this happening now, it's that it's the best time of year for Charlie to play,'' Bettis said from his home Sunday night. "In Weeks Four, Five, Six, Charlie's snaps with the first offense would have dwindled down to zero. But he's been playing a lot with the starters. So there won't be a time he's more ready than now.''

Bettis went on: "I know Charlie well. My locker was next to him the last couple of years. And what I know is he won't be afraid. He's very confident in who he is. He'll love playing in this game.''

Miami was going to be a formidable foe anyway. The Dolphins finished last year on a six-game winning streak, and they added an in-his-prime Daunte Culpepper, who appeared to be in better shape than advertised in the preseason after suffering a major knee injury last year. Part of me thinks Nick Saban will be thrilled to have Roethlisberger out of the game. But another part of me thinks the installation of Batch under center means a great unknown will settle over Dolphins camp today. When I talked to Phil Simms on Sunday night to get his take, he thought the Miami approach to the game would change significantly with Roethlisberger out.

"For sure it'll change the way Miami approaches the game,'' Simms said. "Now they'll be facing a quarterback who's noticeably different than Roethlisberger. I think they might think, Let's see what Pittsburgh can do first before we push the issue. The Miami coaches are going to have to figure, What will we do to Batch that we didn't want to do to Roethlisberger?

"I can see it doing a couple of things to Pittsburgh. The positive for Bill Cowher is it'll be a rallying cry. You know, let's show the world what we can do without our big quarterback. Teams love to let you know there's more to their team than one guy. The other thing is, [and] you saw it in the Bengals playoff game, the trick plays. You saw it at Denver in the playoffs, all the different ways they handled the Broncos' blitzes. Cute screens. And you saw [Antwaan] Randle El throw the touchdown pass in the Super Bowl. I call 'em coaches' plays. The Steelers, throughout history, have been the best at coaches' plays, the plays you don't see coming. That is a big, big plus. They've got 9,000 of those plays, and just because Randle El's gone and you don't know if Hines Ward's playing, it doesn't mean they won't do that stuff. You'll see them. Miami's got to be sitting there thinking, What are the Steelers going to pull out for this game now?''

Great observation. This is a chess game. Roethlisberger was never afraid to leave the pocket, having run 115 times in the last two years, playoffs included. Batch is stapled to the pocket; he has run the ball 12 times in seven Steelers appearances under center. So Saban's thinking: Well, a couple of days ago I knew what the Steelers would do if I rushed Jason Taylor on a stunt up the middle. But now I'm not so sure I know how they'll try to block that, though I'm pretty sure Batch isn't going anywhere back there.

Who's going to have a trick play in his satchel Thursday? Nate Washington? Cedrick Wilson? Santonio Holmes?"

The 87th NFL season was going to be fun enough. But with the Steelers' three offensive leaders from the Super Bowl gone (Bettis), out for the game (Roethlisberger) and questionable out for the game (Ward, with a bad hamstring that forced him to miss every preseason game), the playing field is now even. Very even. This is going to be a heck of a football game Thursday night.

Season predictions

It's the time of year for me to join the masses in my annual exercise in futility -- predicting the NFL pennant races. Division by division, how I see the league this year, with the Wild Cards asterisked:

NFC East

1. Dallas, 11-5: John Madden's right: The most impressive unit of this preseason was Dallas' defense. Great move making Greg Ellis, who was a bit physically overmatched as an every-down defensive end, a latter-day Willie McGinest as strongside linebacker -- even though Bobby Carpenter's going to be a good one eventually -- and this is a deep front seven. Bill Parcells might have an interesting safety in 6-foot-5, 215-pound Pat Watkins, who'll be the tallest safety in recent history. Re: T.O., he won't destroy the chemistry here. Just a gut feeling.

2. * New York Giants, 10-6: Everything's on Eli Manning's shoulders. Agreed. But the awful way he finished '05, in the playoff embarrassment to Carolina, should not make moot how he started it. One of the most amazing stats of last season was that Eli threw for 15 more yards than his brother. Having said that, I trust Tiki Barber will be great again, and I think the defense will improve significantly from it 24th-ranking of last year because the linebackers and secondary will be better. But I truly have no idea how Manning will play. And the Giants' schedule, as I've pointed out this summer, is absurd. They might be very good and still lose their first three (Indy, at Philly, at Seattle).

3. * Philadelphia, 10-6: The Eagles had the best depth in the trenches of any team I saw this summer. Especially on defense, where they're a legitimate four-deep at tackle (Mike Patterson, Brodrick Bunkley, Darwin Walker, Sam Rayburn), and in the interior of the offensive line, which I don't think will get pushed into Donovan McNabb's face as much as it was last year. Remember, the Eagles won 13, 12, 12, 11 and 11 games in the five seasons before last year's injury washout.

4. Washington, 8-8: I am violating a very intelligent mantra about preseason football. "Ignore whatever you see in the preseason,'' Phil Simms says. "It means nothing.'' Maybe. But to me, this means something: With a new play-caller, Al Saunders, taking over the offense for the first time in Joe Gibbs' head-coaching career, Washington's first-team offense had the ball for five quarters of the preseason and scored zero points. Five quarters, 14 drives, no touchdowns, no field goals. Simms will probably be laughing at me in November, when Washington's 10-0 and running away with the division. But even with Clinton Portis returning in seven days for the opener, I don't have a lot of confidence in this offense.