NFL playoff weekend: Scouting the games

Snapshots and full game breakdowns for each of this weekend's four NFL divisional playoff matchups:



KICKOFF: Saturday, 4:30 ET

SURFACE: FieldTurf

TV: FOX, Dick Stockton, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa

SERIES: 14th meeting. Redskins lead 9-4. Washington has won the last four against the Seahawks, all since 2001. Three of the victories were at Washington. The teams have never met in the playoffs. Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren is 0-4 in games against Redskins coach Joe Gibbs. Holmgren has defeated every team in the league except Washington.

2005 RANKINGS: Redskins: offense 11th (7th rush, 21st pass); defense 9th (13th rush, 10th pass). Seahawks: offense 2nd (3rd rush, 13th pass); defense 17th (5th rush, 25th pass)

PREDICTION: Seahawks 23-19

KEYS TO THE GAME: The running games will tell the tale, and not just because wind and rain are expected to pound the Seattle area through the weekend. The Redskins need to hit on a few big plays against the Seahawks' vulnerable secondary, but RB Clinton Portis has still been the driving force behind the team's six-game winning streak. QB Mark Brunell has been uneven down the stretch and Seattle's strength defensively has been coming up with timely sacks and turnovers. While Portis is beat up from a grueling season, Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander should have fresh legs courtesy of the team's bye week. The key could be the start QB Matt Hasselbeck gets off to. The Seahawks' offense relies heavily on timing, which could be thrown off by the down time. But if Hasselbeck can lead an efficient passing attack, it will prevent the Redskins from loading up against Alexander.

FAST FACTS: Redskins: Lead the series 9-4 and have won the past four meetings. ... Seek first trip to NFC Championship game since 1991. ... Coach Joe Gibbs needs one playoff victory to join Tom Landry (20) and Don Shula (19) as the only coaches with 18 or more. Seahawks: Are 8-0 at home this season. ... Have not won a playoff game since Dec. 22, 1984. ... Hasselbeck has won 20 of his past 24 home starts.



-- WR James Thrash isn't likely to play with the fractured right thumb he suffered last Saturday at Tampa Bay. If Thrash can't play, WR Jimmy Farris would be activated to take his place while WR Taylor Jacobs would return to the starting lineup. Thrash has just two catches for 46 yards in two starts after missing the better part of four games with a pulled hamstring, but Jacobs has just two catches for six yards the last six games. Farris has one catch in limited duty in four games.

-- In nine career playoff starts, QB Mark Brunell has 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while completing just 53.7 percent of his passes for 1,566 yards.

-- If the Redskins lose in Seattle, RG Ray Brown's record-breaking 20-year career will end after 273 games and 216 starts.

-- DTs Cornelius Griffin (2000 Giants) and Joe Salave'a (1999 Titans) are the only Redskins on the active roster to have played in Super Bowls. Brown (1997 49ers), Brunell (1996 and 1999 Jaguars), Thrash (2001-03 Eagles), LB Marcus Washington and CB Walt Harris (both 2003 Colts) are the other Redskins to have played in conference championship games.

-- Aside from the retiring Brown (subbing for the injured Randy Thomas), DE Demetric Evans (subbing for the injured Renaldo Wynn), SS Ryan Clark and TE Robert Royal are the only current Redskins starters whose contracts are expiring.


-- CB Andre Dyson (ankle) practiced again Thursday and will start Saturday.

-- CB Marcus Trufant (back) practiced again Thursday and will start Saturday. -- LB D.D. Lewis (foot) practiced again Thursday and could start Saturday.

-- DE Joe Tafoya (hamstring) practiced again Thursday and will play Saturday.

-- WR Darrell Jackson is expected to start Saturday after resting a sore knee in the final regular-season game.

-- RT Sean Locklear sat out most of practice Thursday with a sore hip but coach Mike Holmgren expected Locklear to be ready for Saturday.



The proud Washington defense was embarrassed when it left Raymond James Stadium on Nov. 13 after surrendering 36 points to a not very good Tampa Bay offense.

Given a second chance at the Bucs in last Saturday's Wild-Card game, the defense wasn't going to be denied. Assistant head coach Gregg Williams, the man who runs the defense, told the offensive players that if they managed even a field goal, his boys would take care of the rest.

That they did. In fact, if linebacker LaVar Arrington had been able to take his interception return all the way to the end zone instead of leaving the final six yards to running back Clinton Portis, the Redskins' defense would've outscored both offenses in the 17-10 victory as safety Sean Taylor returned a fumble 51 yards for a touchdown before being ejected for spitting on the Bucs' Michael Pittman in the third quarter.

In Saturday's divisional playoff at Seattle, Washington's defense -- which has forced 20 turnovers during its six-game winning streak compared to just 11 in the first 11 games -- doesn't have redemption on its mind. The Redskins just want to control MVP RB Shaun Alexander.

"Shaun's one of those rare backs that has the patience, the speed, the power, the whole package," Williams said before the team flew to Seattle two days early on Thursday.

The Redskins limited Alexander to 12 yards on six carries in the first half of their 20-17 overtime victory over the Seahawks on Oct. 2. The sixth-year back from Alabama finished with 98 yards on 20 carries, including a 34-yard run and a 3-yard touchdown run.

Washington's defense ranked 13th against the run, allowing 105.4 yards per game, but that average has dropped to 81.7 during the winning streak. Only Dallas gained more than 100 yards. Tampa Bay had 75 yards on 25 carries last week, but the Bucs don't have an Alexander.

"Make no bones about it -- Shaun is a guy that has very few negative-yardage plays," Williams said. "We are going to have to do a good job of tackling and swarming the ball carrier because he's not a guy that is easy to bring down on one-on-one situations."

Added defensive tackle Joe Salave'a, "We have to try to minimize Shaun's opportunities by getting as many bodies as we can around him. Other than not having a cape on, he has been a super-stud all season. We're trying to make sure everybody is playing out their role to the fullest in terms of technique and being where they need to be. And we'll take our chances."


The Seahawks finished up the bulk of their preparations Thursday looking forward to taking a healthy roster into the playoffs.

Cornerbacks Marcus Trufant and Andre Dyson practiced all week and both were expected to start in the team's divisional playoff game Saturday against the Washington Redskins.

Linebacker D.D. Lewis also practiced and appeared ready to return, although coach Mike Holmgren did not say whether Lewis would start.

"I thought we had good week of preparation," Holmgren said Thursday. "I was a little bit mad at the offense yesterday, but they responded with a very, very good practice today. They practiced and played hard all year. They did the same this week. Good week."

The Seahawks have had nearly two weeks to prepare for this game. The first-round bye allowed them to heal up. Holmgren said Wide receiver Darrell Jackson will start after resting his surgically repaired right knee in the final regular-season game. Right tackle Sean Locklear missed practice time with a hip injury Wednesday and Thursday, but Holmgren said he expected Locklear to play Saturday.

Holmgren chuckled when asked whether his team might have trouble getting back up to speed following the bye week.

"I am glad you didn't use the 'rust' word," he said. "I have been asked that question a lot. It is a little amusing to me.

"You play all season long to get the first-round bye; remember, we all wanted to get the first-round bye. Then the big thing is how we are handling it. It is a playoff game, they know what it is all about. They worked very hard to get here."


KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:30 ET


TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver

SERIES: 4th meeting. Bears lead series 2-1. The Bears dominated the Panthers at Soldier Field on Nov. 20 as ex-Panther Muhsin Muhammad scored the game's only touchdown pass in a 13-3 win over the Panthers. The Bears sacked Jake Delhomme eight times and intercepted him twice.

2005 RANKINGS: Panthers: offense 22nd (19th rush, 17th pass); defense 3rd (4th rush, 9th pass). Bears: offense 29th (8th rush, 31st pass); defense 2nd (11th rush, 5th pass)

PREDICTION: Bears 20-17

KEYS TO THE GAME: Keeping drives alive will be critical in a game that could be determined by field position. The Bears have relied heavily on their running game, but they have converted just 7 of 19 third-and-one situations this season. As with the rest of the offense, the Bears hope the increased passing threat with QB Rex Grossman behind center will make life easier on RB Thomas Jones. The Panthers dominated time of possession against the Giants last week by bottling RB Tiki Barber up early and getting their own running game into a groove. That gameplan should prove much more difficult against a healthy Bears defense allowing just 3.7 yards per carry. Chicago held Carolina to 55 rushing yards during the regular season meeting and while WR Steve Smith caught 169 yards worth of passes, he didn't get into the end zone. The Bears' corners again will be happy to led Smith have the receptions in front of them as long as they prevent back-breaking big plays.

FAST FACTS: Panthers: QB Jake Delhomme has a 105.1 passer rating in five career playoff games. ... RB DeShaun Foster has averaged 5.0 yards per carry in five career playoff games. Bears: Defensive linemen accounted for eight sacks in the regular season meeting. ... Seek first trip to the NFC Championship game since 1988. ... WR Muhsin Muhammad is the Panthers' all-time leader with 578 receptions and 7,751 receiving yards.



--RB DeShaun Foster practiced on Thursday and was upgraded to probable for Sunday's game. He will start against the Bears.

--FB Brad Hoover missed a second straight day of work due to an ankle injury. Hoover has been generally beat up this season, but it would take a minor miracle to keep him out.

--LB Brandon Short was upgraded to probable with a knee injury and will start Sunday.

--G Tutan Reyes practiced on Thursday and was upgraded to probable. Expect him to be ready for the Bears.

--WR Ricky Proehl remains probable with a stomach bug that has hit the Charlotte area hard in recent weeks.


--CB Jerry Azumah, who has been nagged by a chronic hip injury, will play his usual nickel corner spot but is expected to be replaced by Rashied Davis on kickoff returns.

--ORT Fred Miller has played in eight postseason games, the most of any Bear.

--RB Adrian Peterson is expected to be the Bears' No. 2 behind Thomas Jones Sunday, even though first-round pick Cedric Benson is fully recovered from a sprained knee suffered nine weeks ago.

--S Brandon McGowan, who started the last three games of the season when Mike Brown was hurt, will have surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee. He hopes, optimistically, to be back in six months.

--ORG Terrence Metcalf will not play Sunday and will be replaced by Roberto Garza, who has started seven games this season, four at left guard and three at right guard, with no discernible difference in production from the starters.



Linebacker Will Witherspoon, the team's leading tackler this season, remains optimistic he will re-sign with the Panthers in the off-season.

He's due to become an unrestricted free agent in March.

Carolina's other unrestricted free agents include running back DeShaun Foster, center Jeff Mitchell and guard Tutan Reyes.

Witherspoon knows the Panthers won't be able to re-sign everyone, but when asked if he thinks a deal will eventually get done, he said, "I do."

Said Witherspoon: "You've got to have faith in it. Worst-case scenario if it doesn't, so be it. Hopefully that's not the case. We've got nothing but the entire off-season to look forward to and to figure it all out."

Witherspoon's best friend on the team, middle linebacker Dan Morgan, received a five-year, $25 million contract extension during training camp.

After Witherspoon was unable to reach a long-term deal in the summer, he asked the team not to worry about contract talks until after the season.

"Part of it is I really didn't want to deal with anything while we were playing," he said. "I don't need anything extra except to go out there and play on Sunday."

Witherspoon declined to say the deal has been frustrating, and added that in no way does he feel disrespected by the organization.

"It's something you've got to go through," Witherspoon said. "We kind of know what the situation is. We have to see if they really feel like they need to make moves. There's no need to make a big fuss about it. That's not going to change anything."


The Bears' bravado heading into Sunday's Divisional Playoff game against the Panthers doesn't qualify as trash talking or talking smack, but they've been sounding pretty confident when they sound off.

Obviously the Bears expect to win Sunday, but what makes this week different than most is that they haven't been at all shy when it comes to talking about it.

Mention to defensive player of the year Brian Urlacher that the Panthers blame their 13-3 loss to the Bears on Nov. 20 at Soldier Field on underestimating their opponent, and the middle linebacker fires back with both barrels.

"I don't really care," Urlacher said. "We won. If they overlooked us and didn't play their best game, whatever. We didn't play our best game either. They scored 3 points. So we didn't play our best game, obviously. They scored on us. They shouldn't have. They can say what they want to. If they overlooked us, they did this and that, we still went out there and outplayed them. That's what we had to do."

That victory won't mean squat if the Bears don't do it again Sunday.

"This game is more important than that last game, for both of us," Bears defensive left end Wale Ogunleye said. "We know it and they know it, and we'll see on Sunday. It's the playoffs. Winner takes all."

The Bears seem to be lining up to announce that they'll get it done. Ogunleye started on Monday with some blunt honesty. He said the Panthers are getting more credit than they deserve for beating the Giants 23-0 and running for 223 yards against a defense that was decimated by injuries.

"The Giants had their starting linebackers on injured reserve," Ogunleye said. "So this is not going to be the same defense they faced. They know what defense they're facing. To me, it's arguably the best defense in this league, so they know they've got to come in with their hard hats and ready to play against us. We're not too concerned about them running the ball because we think we can control the line of scrimmage."

In the last meeting the Bears' d-line owned it. They had eight sacks of Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, all by the defensive line, including three by Ogunleye and two by right end Alex Brown. Those two face the same obstacles this week in Panthers left tackle Travelle Wharton and right tackle Jordan Gross.

"In the back of their minds, they know what they're going against," Ogunleye said. "If we can continue to control the ball the way we did up front and let the linebackers roam about and help out with the secondary, it'll be a good day for us."

Asked about the difficulty of defeating a good team twice in the same season, most Bears brush off the question like a gnat.

"We won the first one; we know we can beat them," strong safety Mike Brown said. "They THINK they can beat us. They haven't done it; not this year at least."

The Bears also believe they're not getting the respect they deserve, but they know how to change that.

"I think most people think they're still the best team in the NFC," Brown said. "We've just got to go out there and prove (we are). We already know it ourselves. We have to prove to other people that we're going to make a serious run."

The whole respect issue is what set Ogunleye off, and he expounded on that topic Wednesday before the Bears returned to practice after on off day Tuesday.

"I don't understand why it's everybody asking us if we're worried about Carolina," Ogunleye said. "I really think that we've been playing well. We've got a great defense, and the offense is starting to click. People asking questions about if we are afraid of Carolina because they're a different team? No, we're not worried. As long as we play our 'A' game, we should be victorious on Sunday."

The Bears' confidence game isn't limited to the defense. Offensive right tackle Fred Miller has one of the Bears' toughest assignments, keeping Panthers two-time Pro Bowl left end Julius Peppers away from quarterback Rex Grossman. In the earlier meeting, Peppers was a non-factor with no sacks, even though Miller played just 13 days after he had his jaw fractured in a fracas with teammate Olin Kreutz.

Miller is anxious for the rematch, even though he'll be in the spotlight, especially if he has a difficult time with Peppers, who has reached double digits in sacks in three of his four NFL seasons.

"I'm very comfortable with it," said Miller, who as a member of the Rams held the Titans' Jevon Kearse without a sack in Super Bowl XXXIV. "This is the thing that you play for. This is what the NFL is all about, having great matchups and going out there in a playoff situation and winning games. I love the feeling of it, and I'm just ready to play and ready to go out there and have a great game because I'm going to come out there fighting like hell.

"I feel like I could block anybody out there, it doesn't matter. Just go out there and play the game. I've been on bigger stages."

The Bears seem confident they'll be playing on a bigger stage a week from Sunday.



KICKOFF: Saturday, 8:00 ET


TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Bonnie Bernstein

SERIES: 40th meeting. Broncos lead 24-15, including a 22-17 Denver win in a first-round AFC playoff game following the 1986 season. The teams have split the last six meetings dating back to 1999. The Patriots are 8-16 all-time in Denver. They lost 10 straight there from 1969 to 1998 but are 2-2 since.

2005 RANKINGS: Patriots: offense 7th (24th rush, 2nd pass); defense 26th (8th rush, 31st pass). Broncos: offense 5th (2nd rush, 18th pass); defense 15th (2nd rush, 29th pass)

PREDICTION: Broncos 27-24

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Patriots attempted to establish their running game against the Broncos' speedy linebackers during the regular season meeting and found themselves in a 28-3 hole. Expect them to feature more of the spread formations that allowed them to stage a comeback that fell just short. The Broncos are thin at cornerback, with CB Domonique Foxworth starting and fellow rookie Darrent Williams the nickel back -- if he can overcome a groin injury. Denver built its big lead in the first meeting courtesy of big plays in the running and passing games. The Patriots have since shored up their run defense, which has in turn greatly protected their injury-depleted secondary. The Broncos desperately want to run the ball significantly and allow QB Jake Plummer to manage the game. New England would love nothing more than to stuff the run and force Plummer to beat them.

FAST FACTS: Patriots: Have an NFL-record 10-game postseason winning streak. ... Are 18-3 (.857) since 2001 when facing a team for a second time in a single season. Broncos: Lead the series 24-15 and won the only previous postseason meeting, 22-17, at home in the 1986 AFC Divisional Playoffs. ... First ever playoff game at INVESCO Field. ... Have won past eight games played on Saturdays.



--With LB Tedy Bruschi (calf) held out of last week's playoff victory over Jacksonville, LBs Chad Brown and Monty Beisel saw significant action. Beisel started in Bruschi's place for the second week in a row and finished with four tackles. Brown played a lot in the second half when the Patriots primarily used their sub packages. He made two tackles and defensed a pass. Bruschi was not listed on this week's injury report.

--FB Patrick Pass enjoyed a career day the last time the Patriots played in Denver, totaling 153 yards from scrimmage. His previous best was 57 yards. Pass rushed 10 times for 64 yards and caught six passes for 89 yards. He had receptions of 39 and 32 yards.

--SS Artrell Hawkins and reserve S Michael Stone each appeared in their first career playoff game last week. Hawkins, who split his first seven NFL seasons between Cincinnati (1998-2003) and Carolina (2004), made his fifth start of the year since joining the Patriots in November. Stone, who signed on in late September, played for Arizona from 2001-04.

--The Jaguars sacked QB Tom Brady four times, all in the first half, in last week's playoff opener. Brady had been sacked only 12 times in his nine previous career playoff games.

--RB Kevin Faulk had the longest postseason catch (21 yards) and second-longest postseason run (19) of his career against the Jaguars.

--TE Dan Graham's father, Tom, was a Broncos linebacker from 1972-74.

--Including his days with the Seahawks (1995-2001), TE Christian Fauria is 2-7 lifetime in Denver.


--CB Darrent Williams should play on Saturday. He has a groin injury but has practiced all week. The Broncos don't know how he'll react in a game situation, however. Denver wasn't testing him too hard during practice early in the week because the Broncos didn't want to set him back.

--G Ben Hamilton has had a very good season. He'll be important on Saturday against New England, getting to the Patriots' talented inside linebackers on Denver's zone running plays.

--LB Al Wilson's biggest asset this year is his mental approach. He's not getting by on physical talent alone. He is seeing the game well and anticipating better than he ever has in his career.

--SS Nick Ferguson will be important in run support against New England. If the Patriots can get their running game going against Denver, it will make Tom Brady even more dangerous.

--WR Ashley Lelie has played a pretty solid all around game in recent weeks. Lelie is a good deep threat but has caught some short passes lately. He would help Denver's offense be more diverse if he can become a complete receiver.



You don't catch 21 passes in the last two Super Bowls without having a sure pair of hands. So when Deion Branch drops a ball, it's big news.

Branch did just that in last week's playoff win against Jacksonville, letting a deep throw slide right through his grasp inside the Jaguars' 10-yard line on the second-to-last play of the first half. The gaffe cost the Patriots a 54-yard touchdown, forcing them to settle for a narrow 7-3 halftime lead in a game they went on to win, 28-3.

"It was a great play," Branch said of the design, not the execution. "We had been (lobbying) for it on the sidelines, and they gave it to me. The line did a great job blocking. Tom (Brady) put it out there. At one point, when I was going after it, I was thinking about diving, and before I knew it, I got up on the ball so fast. I think it was just bad judgment on my behalf. It wasn't anything, just a plain drop."

On Saturday night, Branch and the Patriots will be in Denver to face the Broncos in an AFC Divisional Playoff game. In a 28-20 loss there in Week 6, the Patriots' comeback attempt was stymied by three big drops in the fourth quarter -- two by Branch and one by fellow wide receiver David Givens.

The miscues symbolized a frustrating day for the Patriots' offense as New England snoozed through the first half and fell behind 28-3 in the third quarter. When the Patriots finally got going they discovered that the hole they had dug for themselves was too deep.

"As an offensive player, you always feel like you leave a lot of things on the field, which we have done this season," said Branch, the reigning Super Bowl MVP. "Last season, I can (remember) a couple of games where we went out and played a solid game. This year we haven't played a perfect game or the type of game we want to play on the offensive side of the ball."

Branch, who set career highs in catches (78) and receiving yards (998) this season, had seven catches for 87 yards in the first meeting with the Broncos. He had only two receptions for 36 yards against the Jaguars last week, although those stats would have been much better had he hung onto that bomb.

"I am not going to get down on myself because I know I am not perfect," Branch said. "At the same time, I have to make that play for my team, and I didn't. All the guys were like, 'Hey, we're going to get you the ball back. That play is dead. You're better than that. Don't worry about it.' That's the type of players we have on our team. Who is to say what would happen on another team? I thank God that I am here with these guys."


Not many teams can stop the Denver Broncos' rushing attack, but the New England Patriots haven't allowed much on the ground lately.

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has repeated one statistic this week -- in the second half of the season the Patriots allowed 2.9 yards per rushing attempt. That doesn't count a regular-season finale against Miami when the Patriots rested many starters.

"That's unprecedented," Shanahan said.

The matchup will be strength vs. strength. The Broncos won't give up their running game. They were second in the NFL with 33.9 rushing attempts per game.

"We're going to still stick to what we do," receiver Ashley Lelie said. "We don't worry too much about what they're doing. We got our plan and our system and we'll stick with it."

The Broncos rushed for 178 yards against New England on Oct. 16. But the Patriots were missing some key players in that game, including defensive lineman Richard Seymour and linebacker Tedy Bruschi.

The Broncos will try to exploit whatever they can on New England's defense, but they know that it will be difficult to find any.

"If you do pick up a weakness, it's not there very long," Shanahan said. "You have to adjust throughout the whole game, and they are fundamentally sound. They play good solid football."


KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET

SURFACE: FieldTurf

TV: CBS, Dick Enberg, Dan Dierdorf, Armen Keteyian

SERIES: 24th meeting. Pittsburgh leads the series 18-5, including a 4-0 record in the postseason. The series began in 1950 when the Steelers beat the Baltimore Colts 17-7 in Pittsburgh. The Steelers' nine-game winning streak against the Colts ended Nov. 28 in Indy, 26-7. Bill Cowher is 6-1 against the Colts, two in the playoffs. The Steelers are 1-2 in Indianapolis since the Colts moved there before the 1984 season.

2005 RANKINGS: Steelers: offense 16th (5th rush, 24th pass); defense 4th (3rd rush, 16th pass). Colts: offense 3rd (16th rush, 3rd pass); defense 11th (16th rush, 15th pass)

PREDICTION: Colts 30-21

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Steelers' philosophy is a simple one: the longer they hold the ball offensively the less time Colts QB Peyton Manning spends on the field. Pittsburgh rushed for just 86 yards during the regular season meeting, in part because it managed just seven points. The Steelers must keep the game close so they can stick with their running game and attempt to wear down a quick, but undersized Colts defensive line. To pull off that gameplan the Steelers' defense has to figure out a way to slow an Indianapolis offense that racked up 366 total yards in the first meeting. The Colts' biggest worry might be shaking off the rust from not having played a meaningful game in a month. If Manning can quickly establish the offense's timing, the Steelers will struggle to deal with the Colts' balance. RB Edgerrin James' presence forces Pittsburgh to respect the run, leaving its shaky secondary vulnerable to WRs Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.

FAST FACTS: Steelers: Lead the series 17-5 and have won all four previous postseason meetings. ... Are 12-0 this season when out-rushing an opponent. Colts: Only NFL team to appear in the playoffs in six of the past seven years. ... Coach Tony Dungy played for the Steelers from 1977-78. ... Manning has nine touchdown passes and one interception in his past two home playoff games.



-- DE Kimo von Oelhoffen, who missed Wednesday's practice with a knee injury, returned to practice on Thursday and remains probable for the game.

-- WR Hines Ward has caught a touchdown pass in five consecutive post-season games, tied for third-best streak in NFL history.

-- QB Ben Roethlisberger is 22-3 as a starter over the past two regular seasons, the best percentage of any quarterback in the league.

-- RB Jerome Bettis could be playing his final game. His seven post-season touchdowns rank fourth in Steelers history, and second in rushing touchdowns.

-- WR Antwaan Randle El returned the first punt for a touchdown in Steelers playoff history against the Bengals last week.


--CB Kelvin Hayden did not practice Thursday and his availability for Sunday's game with Pittsburgh is a bit uncertain. Hayden suffered a sprained right ankle during Wednesday's practice.

--WR Troy Walters suffered a groin injury during Thursday's practice. His availability for the Steelers' game has yet to be determined.

--TE Ben Utecht returned to practice on Thursday. Utecht had been given Wednesday off after developing a stomach virus earlier in the day. He is expected to be ready to play in this week's game with the Steelers.

--OT Ryan Diem practiced Thursday for a second straight day and should be able to start Sunday's game. Diem missed the Colts' final two regular season games after suffering a sprained left knee.

--DT Corey Simon showed no ill effects from practicing on Wednesday and is expected to be in the starting lineup against the Steelers. Simon missed the final three regular season games with a sprained left foot.

--DE Dwight Freeney says that he will be able to start against Pittsburgh Sunday. Freeney has practiced this week after missing both workouts last week as he nursed a slight hamstring pull and rested a sprained arch.



Coach Bill Cowher told his players early this week two things: Don't complain about the noise in the RCA Dome and don't say anything to rile up the Colts.

Linebacker Joey Porter said nothing about the noise, but he had a lot of things to say about the Colts. He said they don't play real football in Indianapolis, they aren't physical and practically called running back Edgerrin James soft.

"They don't want to just sit there, line up and play football," Porter charged. "They want to try to catch you off guard. They don't want to play smash-mouth football, they want to trick you."

Porter got riled up when he learned some Colts said they beat the Steelers at their own game on Nov. 28 when they were physical against them.

"That's giving me a little more extra motivation to make sure I put on my big boy pads and make sure we do some hitting out there."

Porter led all NFL linebackers with 10.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl. The Colts' no-huddle offense, run by Peyton Manning, frustrated Pittsburgh's defense in a 26-7 Indianapolis win. The Steelers like to disguise what they're doing on defense but the way Manning runs the no-huddle, they never knew when the snap was coming so they had a hard time disguising things.

"They want to catch you substituting, know what I mean?" Porter said. "They don't want to just call a play, get up there and run a play. They want to make you think. They want it to be a thinking game instead of a football game."

Edgerrin James ran for 124 yards against the Steelers Nov. 28 on 29 carries but he did not impress Porter.

"I still think it was a cheap 100," Porter said. "He's not the run-over type. He just leans forward. It's not like he's just out there to truck nobody. He's not a Jerome (Bettis) or nothing like that. He's one of those guys who has good balance and if you don't wrap him up, he's going to stay on his feet."

Indy outgained Pittsburgh 366 yards to 197 Nov. 28 in the RCA Dome, but left Porter unimpressed.

"I don't think they outhit us," Porter said. "If they would have outhit us they would have just lined up and they wouldn't have done all the audibles every play. If you want to outhit us, line up and play football. That's when you outhit us. Line up, you get your people, we got our eight men in the box, run the ball."


If Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jerry Porter was looking to get into a war of words with the Indianapolis Colts, it didn't happen. Porter created a mini- firestorm this week when he openly questioned the Colts' toughness and made light of Indianapolis' potent offense.

His comments were greeted by a shrug of the shoulders from the Colts, who pointed to the previous meeting between the two teams as their answer. Indianapolis won the game 26-7, limiting the Steelers' ground game to 56 total yards.

"You can tell on the film of the last game, we basically dominated the physical play. They (Pittsburgh) understand that," Indianapolis defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "I understand they have to say, what Joey has to say, what they have to say to try to get us to shoot the shots back at them and stuff like that. But just tell them to look at the film to see what happened. It's not about who's the tougher guy or anything like that. It's about who wins the game."

Safety Bob Sanders, while insisting that he hadn't heard what had been said, nevertheless wasn't about to get caught up in the crossfire.

"You know what? I didn't hear the comments. I really don't care too much for any of that, so I probably won't even worry about it," Sanders said. "I'm not really going to get into it. It's not really my concern. It's not something I'm too worried about.

"In some cases, it's not very smart because then you give teams an advantage. They want to get at you. They want to win and they're going to do whatever it takes to win. But for us, we're just focusing in on going out and playing Colts ball and trying to win."

Colts coach Tony Dungy said that he's wasn't offended by Porter's comments, but after hearing them he thought about taking another look at the video of the previous Pittsburgh-Indianapolis game.

"I encourage my guys, as (Pittsburgh coach) Bill (Cowher) does, to say what's on their mind. I think that's what Joey Porter does a lot. And I don't think that's a bad thing. I think a lot of times you get coach-speak and you get politically-correct things. And he's never been that way," Dungy said. "He says what's on his mind. But I think the general public has to determine if that's accurate of what. But I think it's good. And I don't try to discourage it.

"I tell people to own up to what they say. Don't be the unnamed source. And he has certainly never done that. I think it's pretty good actually. But I don't really think it matters a whole lot. I don't think it will have a tremendous bearing on the game. There was some talk before (the first) game (between the Colts and Steelers), about 15 minutes before the game, and it didn't have too much bearing on it. I am going to go back and watch the tape (of the first game) after listening to Joey Porter. I have to go back and review that game because I guess I didn't quite see it the same way he did."

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