LANDOVER, Md. — Two winning teams. Prime-time football. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins duking it out on the field not far from the nation’s capital, while John McCain and Barack Obama get in a last round of campaigning via television at halftime.
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“We’re coming in 6-2; they’re 5-2. It’s going to be the day before the election,” Redskins guard Randy Thomas said with a big smile. “I mean goll-ee. It’s going to be nice.”
The subject of politics is inescapable on a team so close to the halls of power, so it wasn’t surprising to hear spirited discussions about taxes and socialism throughout the Redskins locker room last week. Nor could ESPN resist the chance to schedule prerecorded interviews with McCain and Obama to air during halftime of the first election eve game hosted by Washington since 1984.
“When I saw that at the beginning of the year, I thought (NFL commissioner) Roger Goodell had a sense of humor, putting that game together on Monday night,” Washington coach Jim Zorn said. “It is pretty incredible that we get to be here in our nation’s capital and playing a very good football team and then have the election the next day. There will be a lot of excitement around the D.C. area, no question.”
As for the teams, early projections have both of them playoff-bound, with the Steelers atop the AFC North and the Redskins firmly in the mix in the rugged NFC East. In fact, Pittsburgh’s only two losses have come against NFC East teams — 15-6 to Philadelphia in Week 3 and 21-14 to the Giants last week.
“It wasn’t like we got physically handled in those games,” Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward said. “You take the two losses, we turned the ball over seven times. It really wasn’t very good on third down conversions. There’s things we have to improve on. If we do that we’ll be fine.”
The Steelers have anchored their success to their top-rated defense, while the Redskins are ranked in the top 10 on both sides of the ball. The big matchup pits running back Clinton Portis — almost unstoppable in five straight games of 120 yards or more — against a defense that hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.
“That’s what we do around here, we stop the run,” Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said. “We welcome that challenge.”
Another challenge for the Steelers will be to keep Ben Roethlisberger upright, although that should be a little easier this week. The Pittsburgh quarterback was sacked 13 times in the two NFC East losses — more than the Redskins defense has all season (10).
“We applied for a job at Giant (grocery store) and didn’t get it,” Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache said, “because we couldn’t sack.”
A challenge for the Redskins has been to prepare properly while suppressing an organization-wide eagerness to get to next week’s bye. Washington started training camp earlier than anyone else because it had an extra preseason game, and its coveted few days of in-season downtime will come during the final week of scheduled byes.
As a result, the Redskins are nicked and bruised all over and in need of a break. The list of those unable to practice on Wednesdays and Thursdays gets longer every week. Zorn had trouble getting a decent cheer out of his weary players following last week’s win over Detroit, and Blache said the team looked like “a Civil War army” trudging to the locker room.
“We are tired. We are a very beat-up football team,” Blache said. “We need to make one more push before the bye. If we can make a few more strokes and get to the shore, we’ll be fine.”
The Steelers are also banged up — and with no rest on the way because they’ve already had their bye — but the excitement of Monday night usually gets the adrenaline going for both sides. Putting aside thoughts of national television and the election should be easy enough, but Roethlisberger — who plays on a team that doesn’t have cheerleaders — came up with a new possible distraction.
“I’m not a big fan of playing there because it is loud, they’re really good at home, and they try to make their cheerleaders stretch in our tunnel before we come out of the locker room,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s just not good.”