Teams face must-win situations

Kind of like the old optimist/pessimist argument -- is the glass half-full or half-empty? -- one can take a couple of different looks at the AFC North standings before today's games begin.
Every team is tied for first, or ... they're all tied for last. And when the final whistle blows in tonight's Steelers-Raiders contest, how those standings look then will go an awfully long way in deciding just which team is going to be representing the foursome in the postseason.
Certainly, no team with Super Bowl aspirations -- like the Steelers -- want to begin the season 0-2. (And yes, the New England Patriots did just that last season, but that was the exception to the rule.)
And, most definitely, no team wants to begin 0-2 against conference opponents, which is one of the tie-breakers.
Favored tonight
The odds-makers don't think the Steelers will do so -- they're 4-point favorites tonight. But then, Pittsburgh was favored by a field goal last Monday at New England and that didn't do them any good.
To the north and west, the Browns have somewhat more modest goals; in the fourth season back from the forced hiatus by Art Modell and Co., Cleveland has its sights set on just making the playoffs.
(Browns fans have even more modest goals -- they just like to see the players keep their helmets on.)
Clearly, today's game against the Bengals -- dare we call them hapless? -- is every bit as important as the clash in Heinz Field a few hours later. The Browns have been installed as 41/2-point favorites and if they have any sights on a postseason berth this is a must-win game, if for no other reason it is a game they should win.
(And, considering how the last two regular season home games have finished, would it be too much to ask for a boring, run-of-the-mill contest?)
On paper, at least, the Steelers have the more difficult assignment today, but it's also true that, of the two teams, Pittsburgh would seem to have the better chance of climbing out of an 0-2 hole.
It's unlikely any team -- except for possibly the Steelers -- will run away with the division lead. If Pittsburgh heads into October stumblin, bumblin' and fumblin', the race could come down to the final weeks of the season.
Could get on a roll
But, if the Black and Gold win tonight and follow that up with a victory against the Browns at Heinz Field on Sept. 29, it could catapult them into a 13- or 14-win season.
After that first meeting with the Browns, Pittsburgh has only three games that one might consider as toss-ups: the rematch in Cleveland and Monday night contests against Indianapolis (Oct. 21) and Tampa Bay (Dec. 23). They should be favorites in the remainder of their games.
Cleveland's hopes, meanwhile, rest squarely on the shoulders of quarterback Tim Couch, or, more specifically, his right forearm.
Couch must be healthy and productive for the Browns to have a chance at making the postseason. Certainly, Kelly Holcomb played well last Sunday against the Chiefs, but he has never demonstrated a streak of consistency as an NFL quarterback.
It seems early in the season that Cleveland's rash of injuries -- they lead the NFL by placing 16 players on injured reserve last year -- has not abated.
But Couch, it seems, is the key. He has the ability to carry a team, which he showed last year, despite all the injuries and the noticeable lack of a consistent rushing attack.
The schedule is somewhat more challenging than Pittsburgh's -- road trips to Tampa Bay and New Orleans, and a home game lurking with the Colts in December.
Clearly, the Browns have less margin for error than the Steelers -- and grasping defeat from the certain jaws of victory, as they did last week doesn't help their chances in any sense.
XRob Todor is sports editor of The Vindicator. Write to him at

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