Warning: Remember those games 'you couldn't lose'

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In Texas, they remember the Alamo. In Pittsburgh, they remember the Texans.

The Steelers, having passed through their AFC North foes with three victories in three weeks and a lock on the division lead, now face a different test altogether. They must find a way to prepare mentally for consecutive opponents who have a combined 1-17 record, and they can gain inspiration from the weirdest upset loss in their franchise history five years ago.

First up today: The New York Jets, who are 1-8, losers of six straight and nine-point underdogs to the 7-2 Steelers at their home in the Meadowlands. Next week, the only winless team in the NFL comes to Heinz Field when the Miami Dolphins (0-9) play the Steelers in a Monday night extrava-snoozer.

Many Steelers said they have no problem preparing for these next two games, even though they are prohibitive favorites. As coach Mike Tomlin said, "The Jets are dangerous because they are an NFL football team."

Linebacker Larry Foote was the most forthcoming about the task ahead as opposed to, say, the one they will face Dec. 9 in New England.

"It ain't the same feeling, I'm not going to lie to you,'' Foote said. "It's not like you're going against one of the top teams. But any team can beat you, you know that."

If Foote and his teammates need a reminder, many of them can dial back to 2002 when the expansion Houston Texans arrived in Heinz Field as 13 1/2-point underdogs to the team that hosted the AFC championship game the previous January.

Houston left with a 24-6 victory, which remains perhaps the biggest in Texas' six-year franchise history.

"That just goes to show you, you can't overlook any team,'' tackle Marvel Smith said.

"I don't think we took them for granted,'' said guard Kendall Simmons, a rookie starter against the Texans. "We probably had 500-some yards, and they didn't have 100. It was all turnovers. Every time they had a turnover, they took it the whole way, and they wound up feeding off that."

One at a time

A look at the games each of the AFC leaders has before the Steelers and Patriots meet at 4:15 Dec. 9 at Gillette Stadium:

1. Patriots

2. Steelers

3. Colts

W-L: 9-0

W-L: 7-2

W-L: 7-2

at Bills.....5-4

at Jets.....1-8

Chiefs.....4-5

Eagles.....4-5

Dolphins.....0-9

at Falcons.....3-6

at Ravens.....4-5

Bengals.....3-6

Jaguars.....6-3

Total.....13-14

Total.....4-23

Total.....13-14

Aaron Glenn returned two interceptions of Tommy Maddox for Houston touchdowns of 70 and 65 yards and Kenny Wright returned a Maddox fumble 40 yards for a score. While the Steelers piled up 422 yards on offense without a touchdown, the Texans managed just 47 -- the fewest by a winning team in NFL history.

A lesson learned by those who lived it.

"It happens,'' said defensive end Aaron Smith. "You can't go into games underestimating someone. The longer you've been in this business, the more you understand that."

Playing football is all about preparation, physically and mentally, because teams play just once a week and, yes, players often need to be motivated one way or another. Playing the Patriots takes care of itself; playing the Jets and Dolphins on consecutive weeks requires something else.

"I think you have to be more mentally prepared,'' Smith said. "Those are the games that scare you the most. They're going to be fired up to play you and you're usually their stepping stone to a better record. You have to fight against getting too relaxed. It's a fine line between winning and losing: 1-8 isn't much different than 8-1, just a few plays here and there, I think. The talent level is so competitive.''

Indeed, the Jets' most recent game two weeks ago ended in a 23-20 loss to Washington in overtime. Five of their eight losses came by a touchdown or less.

"On paper and on the field, they are a totally different team,'' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "You can't look at the on-paper stuff. You have to focus on what kind of team they are.''

The Jets were good enough last season to go 10-6 and make the playoffs. Tackle Willie Colon knows that another 9-point underdog, the Cleveland Browns, nearly upset the Steelers last week in Heinz Field.

"It's just like walking in grass,'' Colon said. "If you're not careful where you're stepping, you'll get bit by a snake.

"They have nothing to lose. They know their season's on a rocky road.''

The Steelers, in the meantime, are a team trying to maintain its current spot as No. 2 in the AFC, which brings all kinds of rewards in the playoffs.

"We know we have to win, keep winning and keep ahead of people,'' Foote said.

"I don't expect this team to let down."


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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