Defense gives Steelers edge

Despite the obvious limitations of veteran quarterback Kerry Collins, the Tennessee Titans seemed destined to be the AFC’s top seed in the playoffs after piling up a 10-0 record.

The Titans stumbled, however, and the Pittsburgh Steelers picked up steam behind their No. 1-ranked defense and improved play by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The top seed that was gift-wrapped for the Titans (12-2) is up for grabs today. Pittsburgh is a 2-point road favorite over Tennessee, which opened as a slight favorite. The total is 34.

Doug Kezirian, the sports director for KTNV (Channel 13), said he agrees with the line move and sides with the Steelers as his best bet.

“The Titans are in an elite group of teams that give maximum effort on a weekly basis. That has enabled them to avoid letdowns and win 12 games, mostly against mediocre opponents,” Kezirian said. “If you analyze Tennessee’s schedule closely, its last impressive win occurred in October.

“The Steelers are a major step up in class with a defense that compares to the best in NFL history.”

Pittsburgh, 11-3 straight up and 8-6 against the spread, is on a five-game winning streak that includes impressive wins against New England, Dallas and Baltimore.

The Steelers’ defense, led by safety Troy Polamalu (league-high seven interceptions) and linebacker James Harrison (15 sacks), shut down the Patriots and Ravens on the road.

“The Steelers might actually perform better on the road,” Kezirian said. “In the past four road games, Pittsburgh’s defense has allowed just two touchdowns.”

Tennessee will play without its two best defensive linemen, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Albert Haynesworth. Since 2004, the Titans are 3-13 without Haynesworth.

Kezirian (ktnv.com) went 8-2-2 in his Week 5 analysis for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and offers his opinions on the rest of today’s Week 16 lineup:

Miami (-31/2) at Kansas City: It’s December, so it’s time to cite the Dolphins’ horrendous record in cold weather. Although the 2-12 Chiefs typically offer a ray of sunshine, especially with bumbling Herm Edwards as the coach, cold weather might doom the Dolphins again. Kansas City possesses upset ability, having suffered six losses by a combined 23 points. With pedestrian offenses involved, winds expected near 20 mph and temperatures hovering around 15 degrees, I lean under the total (38).

Arizona at New England (-71/2): Since storming out to a 7-3 record, the Cardinals have lost three of four and appear on cruise control until the playoffs. Arizona clinched the lowly NFC West, but its defense is surrendering 33 points per game against nondivision opponents. The Patriots tend to dominate this time of year, but they are weaker than in years past. I still expect the Cardinals to lay an egg in frigid and windy conditions. I prefer the under (441/2), but New England should roll in this spot.

Cincinnati at Cleveland (-21/2): With a combined six wins, this has all the makings of a miserable game. Snow is in the forecast with winds near 30 mph, and neither quarterback can handle those conditions well. Cleveland third-stringer Ken Dorsey has trouble making basic throws in ideal weather, and the offense has not scored a touchdown in the past four games. The Bengals’ Ryan Fitzpatrick has shown flashes of competence, but there is a reason he played his college ball at Harvard. It is an extremely low total (32), but I like these respectable defenses to keep it under.

Philadelphia (-41/2) at Washington: Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb has led the team to three straight wins, causing fans to overlook his deficiencies. But even in success, he often overthrows targets and lacks touch. The Redskins’ defense ranks fifth, allowing 284.8 yards per game, and would love to spoil Philadelphia’s playoff chances. Washington has suffered significant injuries on the offensive line and will have trouble scoring, especially if running back Clinton Portis misses this game. With the Redskins’ defense finally at full strength, I like the under (38).

San Francisco (-5) at St. Louis: After coach Mike Singletary auditioned for a Coors Light commercial with a postgame tirade, the 49ers have covered five of their past six games. They play harder, and the offense looks crisper since quarterback Shaun Hill replaced J.T. O’Sullivan. But this is a dangerous scheduling spot. Not only is it the second consecutive road game, the 49ers have flown across the country multiple times in the last month. The Rams have lost eight straight but play much better when running back Steven Jackson is healthy. I lean slightly to the home underdog.

Atlanta at Minnesota (-31/2): The Vikings have won six of their past seven and appear poised for a division title. Atlanta has surpassed all expectations with rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and a 9-5 record. Minnesota has scored a lot in recent weeks, but its special teams and defense deserve most of the credit. The Falcons play intelligently and conservatively. They will rely on field position and force Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson to win this game. Atlanta is a live underdog.

New Orleans (-7) at Detroit: The Lions are two losses from becoming the first 0-16 team in NFL history, switching quarterbacks like a fraternity pickup game. But Detroit has performed decently against the spread, covering six of its past 10. Behind a powerful offense, New Orleans easily can win this game by a touchdown. But the Saints’ defense is porous, and Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky knows how to find star wide receiver Calvin Johnson. I like the over (50) as one of my top plays.

Carolina at New York Giants (-3): Just a few weeks ago, New York appeared on the express train to the Super Bowl. But Plaxico Burress’ suspension has affected this entire team, and the Giants look as though they peaked in November. Carolina is hitting its stride but only against weak opponents. The Panthers have played three road games against teams with winning records, and they lost all three while allowing 92 points. I lean slightly to the Giants, who get a boost with the return of running back Brandon Jacobs. Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme might crumble under the Giants’ powerful pass rush.

New York Jets (-4) at Seattle: A few weeks ago, the Meadowlands personnel were debating options on how to host both conference championship games. The Jets promptly tabled those ambitions and are limping to the playoffs. New York has lost all three games on the West Coast this season but faces an inept Seahawks team with a limited quarterback in Seneca Wallace. I expect the Jets’ veterans to lead them to an ugly and desperate win.

Houston (-7) at Oakland: Once in a while, Oakland’s defense carries the team to victory. Outside of those rarities, the Raiders seem as if they do not belong in the NFL. Management resembles a soap opera, and interim coach Tom Cable looks completely lost. The Texans (7-7) normally never should lay a touchdown on the road. But not only do the Raiders force one to think outside the box, but the Texans are a shadow of the team that opened the season. Running back Steve Slaton has emerged as a threat, and quarterback Matt Schaub has returned from injury. Houston has covered five straight games while possessing the league’s top-ranked offense over that span.

In the past three years, the Raiders lost the season’s final two games by an average of 18 points and failed to cover all six times. The Texans are eager to finish with a winning record, and the Raiders cannot wait to book their winter vacations.

Buffalo at Denver (-61/2): The Broncos control their playoff destiny but might not need a win once this 1 p.m. kickoff approaches. Either way, the Bills face a potential letdown after squandering a late lead to the rival Jets last weekend. They travel for the second straight week and play in altitude, which historically favors Denver. But the Broncos are 0-6-1 as home favorites this season. Look for Buffalo’s defense to suck wind trying to keep up with Denver’s passing attack and the Bills to exploit the Broncos’ horrendous tackling. I like the over (45).

San Diego at Tampa Bay (-31/2): Amazingly, with six wins, San Diego remains alive in the playoff hunt. But too often this season the Chargers have disappointed in seemingly desperate scenarios. They also have proved an inability to perform well on the East Coast, especially in the early time slot. San Diego again finds itself in an unfriendly spot, facing a Tampa Bay team that is 6-0 at home. The Chargers routinely fall behind on the road, but the Buccaneers’ stout defense will not allow a comeback.

Compiled by Las Vegas Review-Journal sportswriter Matt Youmans.

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