Our experts offer insight on the Steelers' running game, Terrell Owens' injury and which team is playing the best heading into the playoffs.
How much will the Steelers miss Willie Parker?
Sean Salisbury: The Steelers will definitely miss Parker because most of Ben Roethlisberger's success comes from the success of the running game. When Parker is on the field, opposing defenses have to step up and respect the run, which allows Roethlisberger to utilize the play-action to get the ball to his receivers downfield. Also, with the linebackers attacking the line of scrimmage to stop Parker, tight end Heath Miller is able to get open and control the middle of the field. This team will now have to rely on a guy (Najeh Davenport) who hasn't shown over a long period of time that he can carry the ball successfully in the NFL. This is a major concern for the Steelers and they have to spend this final regular-season game figuring out how they are going to succeed with running the ball to ready themselves for the playoffs.
Eric Allen: The loss of Parker will hurt the Steelers, but not as much as many think because Davenport gets this team back to its old, physical style of running the ball. The Steelers are trading in the big-play running threat for a return to the physical Steelers' offense that works well come playoff time. Part of the Steelers' inconsistency this year can be attributed to the fact they aren't as physical on offense as they have been in the past. This is a team that normally will pound the football in second- and third-and-short situations. This season we've seen the Steelers have to use gimmicks to get those tough yards because they didn't have a guy who could just lower his head and get those yards. Now Pittsburgh does with the emergence of Davenport.
Is T.O.'s injury a huge concern for the Cowboys?
Salisbury: Losing Terrell Owens is never a good thing, especially for a team that has a young quarterback who relies on Owens when he's in tight situations. That said, this week's game is not an important one to the Cowboys in terms of wins and losses. It's a rivalry game and the Cowboys' fans definitely want their team to beat the Redskins, but the coaching staff realizes that getting Owens fully healthy for the playoffs is what is really important.
Allen: All reports conclude that this won't be the type of injury that will haunt Owens and the Cowboys come playoff time. It needs time to heal, and considering Owens' track record of recovering from injuries, everyone expects him to be in tip-top shape when he steps on the field for the first playoff game. The Cowboys will be all right this week without him because most of the starters wouldn't have played anyway now that Dallas has home-field advantage sewn up.
What is the hottest team (other than the Patriots) in the NFL?
Salisbury: This is a tough one because the Jaguars are playing well, the Redskins have been on top of their game despite some major distractions and the Colts are playing very well while under the radar. My vote goes to the Colts because they are doing it with Marvin Harrison on the shelf, Dwight Freeney out, Joseph Addai banged up and with Anthony Gonzalez having to give a bigger contribution than expected. Despite all of these injuries, the Colts are winning week in and week out and no one seems to be noticing.
Allen: Jacksonville is the hottest team in the league right now. The Jags are playing like it's the playoffs every week, and Fred Taylor is proving he's not done. This is a team that is put together well and has gotten increased production from the receiving corps the past few weeks. All of a sudden the perceived weakness of this team is suddenly a strength and that is because of how well Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew have played. This is a team that will be hard to play when the playoffs roll around and it could pull off a major upset.