The Pittsburgh Steelers (15-1) may be the best team standing. Their operative number is 14, as in 14 straight victories for the team and a 14-0 record for their rookie quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers seem to have the New York Jets' number, too. They have beaten them six straight times and 15 times in 17 meetings. Their defense is aggressive and sound, and if it controls Curtis Martin's running, the Jets must win on the passing of Chad Pennington and his sore throwing shoulder.
In their regular-season meeting, the Steelers intercepted Pennington three times and won. Pennington remembers, saying, "Those questions will be asked again." But his coach, Herm Edwards, told him, "Just throw it and don't worry about it."
The Jets (11-6) beat the Chargers in overtime last week after playing well enough to win and bad enough to lose. Defense got them here, and now that defense must face Roethlisberger and the pounding running of Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis. Coach Bill Cowher won't say which running back will start, but both will carry often.
The Jets will need the pass rushing of defensive end John Abraham, who has missed the last five games with a sprained right knee. His availability will be a game-time decision.
The Jets' other defensive end, Shaun Ellis, spoke confidently of a Jets' victory. That amused Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, who responded, "Wow. He's a fortune teller or something?"
St. Louis (9-8) at Atlanta (11-5)
The Rams are puzzling. Their big offense can move the ball, as witness Marc Bulger's passing for 450 and 313 yards in the last two weeks. Their young defense finally seems to have mastered the multiple formations that were introduced this season.
"We have the talent," Bulger said, "but we've made a lot of mistakes this year." And offensive guard Adam Timmerman said, "It's unfortunate it took that urgency for us to get things done, but we're playing our best ball right now."
Even though the Rams upset the Seahawks in the wild-card round last week, their road record this season is only 3-6. Now, they are on the road again against a better team.
The Falcons have thrived behind quarterback Michael Vick's quick and creative scrambling. This season he ran for 902 yards, the third highest ever for a quarterback. He averaged 7.5 yards a carry and, if fatigue ever figured in the equation, he is well rested
As safety Brent Alexander of the Giants put it, "The longer he can scramble, the longer the receiver can run wherever he wants to. All discipline is lost."
Rams coach Mike Martz is wary of Vick: "I know they'll have something different that involves him to a large extent." But if the Rams can keep Vick in the pocket and keep the Falcons out of Bulger's pocket (the Falcons' defense has 48 sacks this year), look for an upset.
Minnesota (9-8) at
The Vikings got here by upsetting the Packers last week, but they have lost seven of their last 11 games, their defense is unsteady, running back Moe Williams has a sprained right ankle and wide receiver Randy Moss leads the league in bad-taste celebrations.
As long as the Vikings have Duante Culpepper to pass to Moss, they are alive. This is the big quarterback's sixth and best season in the NFL. He led the league with 4,717 yards passing, 39 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions. Against the Packers, he passed for four touchdowns while his defense intercepted Brett Favre four times.