After flailing for five weeks, Super Bowl starters find form

The Baltimore Sun

The starting quarterbacks from last season's Super Bowl combined to throw a hand-wringing 14 interceptions through the first five weeks of 2006.

Yesterday, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Hasselbeck took bold steps toward restoring order in their respective NFL universes.

In Week 6, Roethlisberger launched his first touchdown pass since last season's AFC championship game, leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 45-7 rout of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Hasselbeck was nearly flawless, bringing the Seattle Seahawks back from a 14-point deficit to beat the Rams, 30-28, on a last-play field goal in St. Louis and retake the NFC West lead.

After throwing seven interceptions apiece in their first four games, the two Super Bowl quarterbacks finally played up to expectations.

Roethlisberger's early slump was more troublesome because of his touchdown drought, the Steelers' 1-3 start and his off-field issues.

He seemingly resolved those problems by throwing for 224 yards and two touchdowns in the first half as the Steelers cruised to a 31-0 halftime lead.

Better yet, the AFC North is backing up to meet the Steelers. Losses by the Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals left Pittsburgh with a lesser hole from which to climb out.

Hasselbeck had five touchdowns to go with his seven picks before yesterday. While the Seahawks have lost only once this season, that loss -- a 37-6 blowout against the Chicago Bears -- suggested Seattle might become the sixth straight Super Bowl loser to miss the playoffs the following season.

Not to worry, Seahawks fans. Throwing for 268 yards and three touchdowns, Hasselbeck dispatched Seattle's only serious NFC West threat.

Although the game came down to a clutch 54-yard field goal by Josh Brown, it was the emergence of Deion Branch (six catches, 76 yards, two touchdowns) that bodes well for the Seahawks.

Comebacks dominate

Halftime leads meant little in Week 6. Of the eight 1 p.m. starts, five were won by teams that trailed at halftime.

The three most impressive comebacks all came on the road. In addition to the Seahawks' big win, the New York Giants and Tennessee Titans overturned 11-point deficits.

The Giants beat the Atlanta Falcons at their own game, turning Tiki Barber (185 rushing yards) loose on the league's No. 2 rush defense for a 27-14 win. Barber's effort outshined Warrick Dunn's 146-yard performance that included a 90-yard TD run.

Down 14-3 after that long run early in the third quarter, the Giants scored the last 24 points. A pass rush that sacked the Falcons' Michael Vick seven times was the difference.

The Titans overcame a 14-3 deficit to beat the Washington Redskins, 25-22, with 178 rushing yards from Travis Henry. Tennessee won on a 30-yard field goal by Rob Bironas.

Brees rallies Saints

If there was any doubt about how important Drew Brees has been in the New Orleans Saints' turnaround, it was erased in a pulsating 27-24 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Brees helped the Saints to a 17-3 first-half lead. When the Eagles rebounded for a 24-17 lead in the second half, Brees hit Joe Horn for a tying 48-yard touchdown pass.

Then he directed a 16-play, 72-yard drive to the winning field goal, a 31-yarder from John Carney, that consumed the final 8:26 of the game.

Brees threw two interceptions, but also threw for three touchdowns and 275 yards. The resurgent Saints are the surprise story of the NFL, leading the NFC South at 5-1.

They have a bye next week, then face the Ravens in New Orleans in Week 8.

S. Smith: playmaker

Terrell Owens had three touchdown catches in the Dallas Cowboys' 34-6 romp over the hapless Houston Texans -- will he shut up for a week now, maybe? -- but it's hard to imagine a better receiver in the NFL than Carolina's Steve Smith.

Smith torched the Ravens for eight catches worth 189 yards in the Panthers' 23-21 victory, and his 72-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter decided the issue.

Smith is the best playmaker in the league right now, and because of him, the Panthers are never out of any game.

Replay works for Bucs

Say what you will about instant replay, but it served its purpose in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 14-13 win over the Bengals.

When Bucs receiver Michael Clayton lost the ball upon hitting the ground in the end zone after taking a pass from Bruce Gradkowski, the play was ruled an incompletion. But the booth official ordered a replay, and it was determined that Clayton had broken the plane at the goal line first, and the touchdown sent the Bengals to their second straight loss.

It also ended a streak of eight straight wins against NFC opponents for Cincinnati.

NFC has upper hand

It's still early, but this is worth noting: The NFC holds a 13-8 advantage in interconference games so far, including a 4-2 edge in yesterday's games.

The AFC's only wins in Week 6 belonged to the Titans, who beat the Redskins, and the San Diego Chargers, who shredded the San Francisco 49ers, 48-19.

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