New England and Pittsburgh have met twice this decade in AFC championship games. Their game in Foxborough on Sunday isn't as critical as those were, but it certainly has serious playoff implications, especially for the Patriots.
New England enters this game at 7-4, a game behind the Jets in the AFC East. If the season ended now, the Patriots would be just behind Indianapolis and Baltimore for a wild-card playoff spot. The season doesn't end now, of course, but with five games left, every game gets more important.
The Steelers are 8-3, a game ahead of the Ravens in the North. But they still have a game in Baltimore and a tough closing schedule that also includes the Cowboys and Titans.
In other words, nothing is secure for either team.
The Patriots are coming off a 48-28 win over Miami in which Matt Cassel passed for 415 yards, the second straight 400-yard game for the quarterback who hadn't started since high school until he replaced Tom Brady early in the opening game of the season. Cassel seems to be peaking, but is New England?
"I don't think we are going to know that until we play the next five games," coach Bill Belichick says. "You always want to play your best at this time of year and we will see if that is the case against Pittsburgh."
Don't look for another 400-yard game from Cassel against a defense that is first in the NFL and hasn't allowed 300 yards total in a game this season.
"Our secondary doesn't get the credit it deserves," cornerback Ike Taylor says. "It's usually all about our linebackers. That's two years in a row we've been No. 1 and we still don't get the credit."
The Steelers come into this game with 10 days rest; they beat Cincinnati 27-10 last Thursday night. The rest is a good thing for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has been playing with a sore shoulder and other banged-up body parts after a series of physical games.
This is the seventh time these teams have met this decade, with New England winning five of the previous six, including those two title games.
"Teams like that, you have so much information on," Belichick says. "Three years ago they hurt you with this and four years ago they hurt you with that. They hurt us with this in the AFC championship game. So in some respects you have too much information and you have to boil it down to what you feel like you can present to the players."
Any way you approach it, one of these teams will get hurt in the standings this week.
The weekend began with three Thanksgiving games. Tennessee moved to 11-1, the best record in the league, with a 47-10 rout of winless Detroit (0-12). Dallas improved to 8-4 with a 34-9 romp past Seattle (2-10). Philadelphia prevented Arizona (7-5) from clinching the NFC West with a 48-20 win in which Brian Westbrook scored four touchdowns for the Eagles (6-5-1).
In other Sunday games, Miami is at St. Louis; Carolina at Green Bay; the New York Giants at Washington; San Francisco at Buffalo; Baltimore at Cincinnati; Indianapolis at Cleveland; New Orleans at Tampa Bay; Atlanta at San Diego; Denver at the New York Jets; Kansas City at Oakland; and Chicago at Minnesota.
Jacksonville is at Houston on Monday night.
New York Giants (10-1) at Washington (7-4)
With Tennessee's loss, the Giants have ascended in the NFL's version of the BCS to the spot they really should have been in long ago: No. 1 in the rankings. Which means nothing, because in the NFL it's what you do on the field that counts, not what you do in the "polls." New York is fine on the field, demonstrating its depth by beating the Cardinals without Brandon Jacobs and Plaxico Burress last week. Jacobs should be back, Burress is more iffy.
This game is more important to Washington, which lost in the Meadowlands 16-7 on opening night. The Skins are in an NFC wild-card race that probably will come down to the final weekend. Clinton Portis, who played through knee and hip injuries to help the Redskins escape Seattle, is a question mark for this game, and his backup, Ladell Betts, also has been banged up.
Denver (6-5) at New York Jets (8-3)
The New York tabloids are doing matchups and predictions this week for a Jets-Giants Super Bowl, an event that might turn off the rest of the nation. Premature to say the least, although the Jets' win over the previously unbeaten Titans certainly established them as a legitimate contender.
How can the Broncos win in Atlanta and then lose at home to Oakland? One reason was an awful defense against which JaMarcus Russell went 10-of-11 for 152 yards and had Denver fans leaving the stadium long before the end of a truly shocking 31-10 defeat.
Chicago (6-5) at Minnesota (6-5)
For the lead in the NFC North, a division that's unlikely to produce a wild-card team in a conference where no one in the East and South is under .500.
Minnesota has been living by others' mistakes, jumping to a 14-0 lead in the first two minutes on Jaguars errors in Jacksonville last week, even with Adrian Peterson sitting early for being late to a meeting. But to be a factor in the playoffs, or even get there, the Vikings need to liven up their offense.
Chicago had five sacks and four interceptions in St. Louis last week, but don't expect that against any real NFL team, which the Rams are not. The Bears' defense that helped it get to the Super Bowl in 2006 isn't close to that level now.
Carolina (8-3) at Green Bay (5-6)
Two teams that surrendered 96 points between them last week.
The Panthers gave up 45 in Atlanta and fell into a tie with Tampa Bay in the NFC South. Asked what the problems were, coach John Fox responded: "I don't know what you call problems. I think overall in our body of work we've played pretty good defense and good enough to win eight games. Are the three losses problems? I guess."
The Packers' 51-29 loss in New Orleans on Monday night left them a game behind the Bears and Vikings. This is the toughest game remaining on a schedule that includes Houston, Jacksonville and Detroit, plus an important showdown with the Bears.
New Orleans (6-5) at Tampa Bay (8-3)
The Saints, whose defense finally showed up Monday night with three interceptions, probably can't afford more than one more loss and maybe not even that if they hope to make the playoffs. They certainly can't afford to lose a division game against a rival that's already two games ahead of them.
Tampa Bay is 5-0 at home for the first time in franchise history. The Bucs also are resilient, three times overcoming double-digit deficits to win road games. Last week, they fell behind 17-0 in the first quarter against winless Detroit and were up 21-17 by halftime.
Indianapolis (7-4) at Cleveland (4-7)
Indy has won four straight and should get to seven — after this it has Cincinnati and Detroit. The Colts are finishing strong instead of starting that way, their usual habit. That will make them a threat in the playoffs, assuming they get there.
Brady Quinn is out for the season with a broken finger and Derek Anderson is back at quarterback for the Browns, who are the victims of heightened expectations and a hard schedule. Owner Randy Lerner, whose Aston Villa side has surged up the table in soccer's English Premiership, said this week he hasn't decided yet whether to retain general manager Phil Savage and coach Romeo Crennel.
Atlanta (7-4) at San Diego (4-7)
When was the last time a 4-7 team had a chance to win a division? That's what the Chargers can do in the awful AFC West, where they are two games behind struggling Denver. But San Diego is playing very poorly, is being coached badly and might have less talent than people think.
The Falcons have a shot at the NFC South title or a wild card. But three of their final five games are on the road, where they are 2-3, and only the final one, at home to St. Louis, is anything close to a guaranteed win.
Miami (6-5) at St. Louis (2-9)
This game is one reason why the Dolphins might be able to squeeze into an AFC wild-card spot. Their schedule includes the Rams, Chiefs, 49ers, plus the Bills in what is in effect a neutral warm-weather indoor site in Toronto. The toughest game is the last one at the Jets, and by then, New York may not be playing for anything.
St. Louis might be without QB Marc Bulger, who has a concussion. The way the Rams are playing, it probably doesn't matter if he's in or out.
Jacksonville (4-7) at Houston (4-7) (Monday night)
Nothing on the line here, although Houston could have its first winning season if it takes its last five. It won't. The one interesting aspect might be to see how the ESPN script writers get Tony Kornheiser to discuss ancient history: the must-discuss Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers scenario in Green Bay, even with the Packers playing on Sunday against Carolina.
Jacksonville is a divided team — both among the players and between them and coach Jack Del Rio. It gave up two touchdowns in less than two minutes against Minnesota last week and never recovered. "What I recognize is there's not going to be any quick fix," Del Rio said.
Baltimore (7-4) at Cincinnati (1-9-1)
The Ravens are a game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North and in contention both for the division title and a wild-card spot. They might get the former because their closing schedule is, on paper, slightly easier than what the Steelers have.
But this is a game they should win against a team that's beaten up physically and emotionally. Robert Geathers and Frostee Rucker, who started at defensive end against Pittsburgh last week, went on injured reserve this week.
San Francisco (3-8) at Buffalo (6-5)
The 49ers have played harder under Mike Singletary than under Mike Nolan, but the on-field results haven't been much better.
The Bills scored 54 points last week in beating Kansas City, second best in franchise history, and ended a four-game losing streak. They could still contend for an AFC wild-card spot, but overcoming the Jets and Patriots in the East may be too tough.
Kansas City (1-10) at Oakland (3-8)
The Chiefs have come close a few times although they managed to allow 54 points to Buffalo at home last week. The Raiders, who won in Kansas City during the Lane Kiffin administration, have won two under Tom Cable, including last week's shocking 31-10 upset in Denver in which only one of JaMarcus Russell's 11 passes was incomplete.