THE GAMES — Otis Birdsong, the former All-Star sharp- shooter for the NBA's Kansas City Kings and New Jersey Nets, once quipped that the three certainties of life were: "Death, taxes and my jump shot."
If you put an NFL spin on Otis' boast, you might replace his feathery jumper with the fact the Pittsburgh Steelers are always going to be Super Bowl contenders.
Or at least you could have until this season.
Age and injuries have finally caught up to the 2013 Steelers and Mike Tomlin's current bunch is probably earmarked for a year-long, celler-dweller dogfight with the Cleveland Browns, not it's accustomed spot as one of the true heavyweights in the AFC.
Since Chuck Noll's first winning season in 1972, the Steelers have had only seven losing campaigns over a 40-year span with the low-water mark being 5-11 in 1988. Over that same time frame, Pittsburgh has won 20 division titles, eight AFC crowns and is football's only six-time Super Bowl champion.
This is not an organization used to failure or looking up at the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North standings. In fact, the Steelers have treated the Queen City like a second home over the years, winning 11 of their last 12 at Paul Brown Stadium before Monday night's 20-10 setback to Marvin Lewis' crew.
Perhaps no team has had a more difficult start to the 2013 season than the Steelers, though.
Accustomed to kicking off a new year in style, especially at home at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh lost far more than a game in Week 1 when Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, defensive leader Larry Foote and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling all went down with season-ending injuries during an ugly 16-9 setback against Tennessee.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Tomlin said at the time. "Nobody cares about our problems. They're glad we've got them. We need to understand that. We need to stick together and persevere."
Persevering wasn't going to be easy in Cincinnati, where an old friend, James Harrison, and a strong Bengals front seven laid in wait after a bitter Week 1 hiccup at Chicago.
Despite bringing in football's most impressive curriculum vitae, and it's longstanding dominance over the Bengals, you never got the feeling Pittsburgh even had a chance on Monday, no doubt a bitter pill to swallow for some haughty western Pennsylvania fans used to nothing but good times.
For once, Cincinnati had the more talented club and perhaps more importantly, the healthier one.
Bengals rookie running back Giovani Bernard gave his offense a little juice out of the backfield and scored two touchdowns as Cincinnati shut down Pittsburgh.
Bernard ran for an early score and then caught a 27-yard touchdown pass from Andy Dalton in the third quarter which gave the Bengals a lead they never relinquished.
"He did the things that we expect him to continue to do. He had the great catch-and-run. He had a big run earlier. And then (BenJarvus Green-Ellis) comes back and finishes it off. So it was a good job today by the two of them," Lewis said.
The real difference, though, was the Bengals defense, which forced two turnovers and limited Pittsburgh to a mere 278 yards and 14 first downs.
Ben Roethlisberger, hurried throughout the game, threw for 251 yards with a touchdown and an interception for the Steelers, who have dropped their first two games of the season for the first time since 2002.
It's also the first time Pittsburgh has been two games under .500 under Tomlin, who took over in the Steel City back in 2007.
"They were the better team tonight," Tomlin admitted. "We'll continue to work and move forward."
They will be moving forward, however, with a veteran QB who doesn't like his offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, an offensive line in shambles and a running game that's virtually non-existent -- an almost sacrilegious development for a franchise which has always prided itself on its ability to run the football.
Tomlin has never suffered through a losing season as a head coach, earning four playoff appearances, two Super Bowl berths and the Super Bowl XLIII championship in his previous six years at the helm in Pittsburgh.
In good times or bad -- like last season's .500 finish -- Tomlin has always preached accountability.
"There's a certain amount of misery with the position that we're in," Tomlin said after watching his team fall to 0-2. "We'll wear it. We don't like it, (but) we'll wear it."
That steady hand will serve Tomlin well and have the Steelers back into a desirous situation sooner rather than later, but sooner doesn't mean 2013.
For once, it's all about patience in Pittsburgh.
NFL POWER POLL
The Sports Network's updated NFL Power Poll, which ranks all 32 league teams, can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/2cjp9l8. WEEK 3
Kansas City (2-0) at Philadelphia (1-1), Thursday, 8:25 p.m.
LINE: Eagles by 3
THE SKINNY: Kansas City head coach Andy Reid returns to Philadelphia, where he guided the Eagles to 140 total victories in 14 seasons. He will join Curly Lambeau and Hank Stram as the only head coaches in NFL history to face a team he mentored for at least 14 seasons.
"It's not about me," Reid said. "It's about our football team."
That team is just the fifth in league lore to start 2-0 after losing at least 14 games in the prior season.
In Philadelphia, there is a growing concern that Chip Kelly might be the bizarro Buddy Ryan in that he only cares about offense. Through two games, it looks like Kelly's vaunted offensive schemes are translating well, but he rarely had to worry about "silly things" like the defensive side of the ball or clock management at Oregon. The learning curve is going to be much steeper than most thought in those aspects.
That said, even though Reid seems rejuvenated in Kansas City, the Chiefs just don't have the firepower to win the type of game you can against the Eagles. Meanwhile, the short week of preparation works against a defense trying to catch up to Kelly's tempo.
"I know that every game we're going to play is going to be close, and that's what this league is all about," Kelly said. "It's important to execute every single snap you get out there on the field."
PREDICTION: Eagles 31, Chiefs 23
Houston (2-0) at Baltimore (1-1), Sunday. 1 p.m.
Line: Texans by 2 1/2
THE SKINNY: Future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed will both be back in Baltimore for this one. Lewis will enter the Ravens' Ring of Honor while Reed is expected to make his return from offseason hip surgery against his old team, at least according to Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
"We'll have to assume that he's going to play," Harbaugh said of the eight- time All-Pro, who left the reigning Super Bowl champs as a free agent in the offseason. "We'd be surprised if he didn't play in this game, and we'll have to assume that he's going to play the way he's played in the past."
The Ravens notched their first win without Lewis and Reed last week against Cleveland to even their record at 1-1. Baltimore also started 1-1 last year en route to a victory in Super Bowl XLVII. Against the Browns in Week 2, the new- look Ravens D allowed just 259 total yards and recorded five sacks.
"We have a chance to be one of the best pass-rushing teams in the league," Harbaugh said. "We have to make that happen."
The Texans, meanwhile, forced overtime against Tennessee last week on an Arian Foster touchdown and two-point conversion with 1:53 remaining in the fourth quarter before winning in the extra frame on rookie wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins' 3-yard TD catch. With the victory, Houston became the first team since 1970 to start 2-0 with both wins coming on the game's final play.
"It's probably not the best for your blood pressure, but we find a way to win and that's all that matters," said reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
PREDICTION: Ravens 21, Texans 20
Green Bay (1-1) at Cincinnati (1-1), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Packers by 2
THE SKINNY: The Packers offense is No. 1 in all of football after becoming the first team in NFL history with a 450-yard passer (Aaron Rodgers, 480) and 125- yard rusher (James Starks, 132) in the same game last week against Washington. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis recorded his 80th career regular-season win Week 2 against Pittsburgh, the most in franchise history. Meanwhile, Cincinnati has won four of its past five at home and signal caller Andy Dalton has 10 TDs versus one pick over that span.
PREDICTION: Packers 24, Bengals 21
New York Giants (0-2) at Carolina (0-2), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Panthers by 1 1/2
THE SKINNY: This is a virtual must-win game for two 0-2 clubs. The Giants have been serving up more turnovers than your local bakery, committing a franchise- record 10 over the first two weeks. New York QB Eli Manning, who has started 137 consecutive games - the longest active streak in the NFL - is 4-1 lifetime against Carolina, In Charlotte, Cam Newton's numbers - he's the only player in NFL history with 8,000-plus pass yards (8,274), 40-plus pass TDs (43), 1,500- plus rush yards (1,500) and 20-plus rush TDs (22) - haven't translated to success on the field. Newton is now 13-21 as an NFL starter after last week's setback in Buffalo.
PREDICTION: Giants 27, Panthers 17
St. Louis (1-1) at Dallas (1-1), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Cowboys by 4
THE SKINNY: Tony Romo has never lost to the Rams, compiling a 2-0 mark while recording a 112.1 passer rating. The Cowboys are 28-6 all-time when their leader has a 110-plus rating. Romo's counterpart in this one, Sam Bradford, passed for 352 yards in a setback to Atlanta last week and three TDs, which matched his career-high.
PREDICTION: Cowboys 28, Rams 20
Cleveland (0-2) at Minnesota (0-2), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Vikings by 5 1/2
THE SKINNY: It's a bit of a "Desperation Bowl" in Minny, where the Browns will welcome speedy WR Josh Gordon back from suspension but will be without quarterback Brandon Weeden, who is out with an injured thumb. Instead of going with backup Jason Campbell, however, rookie coach Rob Chudzinski tabbed third- stringer Brian Hoyer. The Browns may be able to use "Joe Schmo" against a Vikings defense allowing 440 yards per game (28th in the NFL) and 32.5 points (30th).
PREDICTION: Vikings 27, Browns 20
Tampa Bay (0-2) at New England (2-0), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Patriots by 7
THE SKINNY: The Patriots may be banged-up, especially at the skill positions, but New England has won 31 of its past 35 home games and All-Pro QB Tom Brady has a TD pass in 50 straight games, just four behind Drew Brees' NFL record. Brady is 2-0 as a starter against the Bucs and 35-9 all-time against NFC foes. That's probably too much to overcome for "Team Turmoil," which seems to be tuning out second-year head coach Greg Schiano.
PREDICTION: Patriots 20, Bucs 13
Arizona (1-1) at New Orleans (2-0), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Saints by 7 1/2
THE SKINNY: Brees has only met the Cardinals twice in NOLA, but he's put up some gaudy numbers against them in the Bayou, completing 49-of-62 passes (79 percent) for 562 yards with five TDs and a ridiculous 131.3 passer rating. Cornerback Patrick Peterson and rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu, who both starred in college at LSU, are two of the key cogs who will be asked to slow Brees down. Peterson had four tackles, a pass defensed, a 17-yard completion, a 17- yard reception and three punt returns in a win over Detroit last week, becoming the first defender with a catch and a completion in the same game since 1970.
PREDICTION: Saints 34, Cardinals 23
San Diego (1-1) at Tennessee (1-1), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Titans by 3
THE SKINNY: The Titans will play the first of three consecutive games in Nashville and will try to halt an ugly nine-game losing streak against San Diego in their 2013 home opener. In fact, the Titans have never beaten the Chargers with the franchise's last win in the series coming nearly 21 years ago on Sept. 27, 1992, when it was known as the Houston Oilers. San Diego is averaging 37.7 points per game in its last three games against the Titans and QB Philip Rivers is 5-0 as a starter against Tennessee with 10 TDs and a passer rating of over 100. The added juice of this being the home opener for the Titans could finally get them over the top, however.
PREDICTION: Titans 23, Chargers 20
Detroit (1-1) at Washington (0-2), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Redskins by 1 1/2
THE SKINNY: Let's just say the Beltway is not Detroit's favorite place. Since the Redskins franchise moved to Washington in 1937, it is 21-0 at home against the Lions. In fact, the only home losses to Detroit came in 1933 and 1935 when the team was based in Boston. That's just too much history to overcome for an undisciplined Lions team, even though Washington has looked like a mess over the first two weeks.
PREDICTION: Redskins 27, Lions 21
Atlanta (1-1) at Miami (2-0), Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
LINE: Dolphins by 1 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Dolphins host Atlanta in their home opener after winning two straight on the road. In Week 2, second-year QB Ryan Tannehill passed for 319 yards and outplayed Andrew Luck as the Fish beat the Colts, 24-20. Miami also had two 100-yard receivers in the game: Mike Wallace (nine catches, 115 yards, TD) and Charles Clay (five catches, 109 yards).
"That was a lot of fun and any time you can get a win on the road, that's a big accomplishment," Tannehill said.
Matt Ryan threw for 374 yards and two touchdowns and Julio Jones had 11 catches for 182 yards and a TD in the Falcons' 31-24 win over St. Louis in Week 2. Jones, who had an 81-yard TD catch, is the first player in NFL history with an 80-plus yard touchdown reception in each of his first three seasons.
"Julio and Matt seemed to be in sync, seeing the defense the same way," said Atlanta head coach Mike Smith. "When you have your receiver and quarterback doing that, you have a chance to be successful."
PREDICTION: Falcons 28, Dolphins 23
Buffalo (1-1) at New York Jets (1-1), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Jets by 2 1/2
THE SKINNY: A couple of rookie QBs clash in North Jersey as Buffalo's E.J. Manuel makes his first road start against the Jets' Geno Smith. Manuel threw a 2-yard TD pass with two seconds remaining to lift the Bills over Carolina last weekend, joining Seattle's Russell Wilson as the only NFL players to throw a game-winning TD pass inside the two-minute warning in September of their rookie season since 1960. New York is shooting for its fourth consecutive home win over Buffalo and coach Rex Ryan will try to improve in his solid 7-2 September home record.
PREDICTION: Jets 17, Bills 16
Indianapolis (1-1) at San Francisco (1-1), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: 49ers by 10 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Colts and 49ers -- two playoff teams from a year ago -- aim to rebound from Week 2 losses. The game also will mark the first time former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh, the Niners' current mentor, and his star quarterback with the Cardinal, Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, will meet in the NFL.
Harbaugh and Luck were together at Stanford for three seasons (2008-10), with Luck starting two of those years (2009-10). In 2010, the Cardinal finished 12-1, including a victory in the Orange Bowl.
"He's a terrific player," said Harbaugh when talking about Luck. "There are not a lot of weaknesses that he has. He's a top-notch player. We're going to have to be very sound against him. This is the third week in a row we're playing one of the top quarterbacks in the league."
PREDICTION: 49ers 30, Colts 20
Jacksonville (0-2) at Seattle (2-0), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Seahawks by 19 1/2
THE SKINNY: If there was ever a team to take in your knockout pool, it has to be Seattle this week. Football's best home team is favored by 19 1/2 points as they welcome the worst team in the game to the Pacific Northwest. Wilson is 9-0 as a starter at home, completing 114-of-183 passes for 1,646 yards with 18 TDs and just three picks. Meanwhile, the Jags' best offensive player, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, is dealing with a foot tendon sprain.
PREDICTION: Seahawks 30, Jaguars 10
Chicago (2-0) at Pittsburgh (0-2), Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
LINE: Bears by 2 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Bears have been living on the edge, but they also must be living right, recording two fourth-quarter comeback wins in the early going. Chicago QB Jay Cutler is 2-0 against the Steelers and will be aiming for his third straight game with a passer rating over 100.0 against them, a mark that serves as a bit of a death knell for his opposition. Cutler's teams are 26-1 when he has 100-plus passer rating.
PREDICTION: Bears 20, Steelers 17
Oakland (1-1) at Denver (2-0), Monday, 8:40 p.m.
LINE: Broncos by 14 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Raiders and the Broncos will be meeting on "Monday Night Football" for the record 17th time.
The Peyton Manning-led Broncos lead the NFL with 90 points and are only the third team in the past 30 years to score 40-plus points in each of their first two games, joining the 2009 Saints and the 2001 Colts, who were also piloted by Manning.
Manning leads the league with a 131.0 passer rating and is the only player in NFL history with nine touchdown passes and no interceptions through the first two weeks of a season. He threw seven TDs in the opener against Baltimore and added two more last week versus the New York Giants as he topped his brother Eli in "Manning Bowl III."
"It was a good team victory," Peyton said. "To go into New York and beat a good football team on the road, hopefully we can build off that."
Oakland is coming off its first win after running back Darren McFadden rushed for 129 yards in a triumph over Jacksonville. The Raiders currently boast the NFL's No. 1 rushing attack, averaging 198.5 yards per game. McFadden leads the AFC with 177 rushing yards and QB Terrelle Pryor is third with 162 yards.
PREDICTION: Broncos 41, Raiders 17