KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:15 ET
TV: NBC, Al Michaels, John Madden, Andrea Kremer
SERIES: 26th meeting. Denver leads the series, 15-9-1, including a 6-2-1 record in Denver. However, the Steelers have had some monumental success in Denver. They pulled a huge upset in 1984 in the playoffs, and they won the AFC championship in Denver on the way to their victory in Super Bowl XL. Last season, the Broncos came to Pittsburgh and won 31-10. The teams became the first to finish in a tie, 35-35, in an overtime game when they played in Denver in 1974.
PREDICTION: Steelers 27-19
KEYS TO THE GAME: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger joked that he might have to get all his throwing in before practice this week. The Steelers are averaging 167 rushing yards per game while the Broncos are ranked dead last in giving up 187.6 yards per game on the ground. Featuring a heavy dose of the ground game should leave Roethlisberger with plenty of man coverage downfield, where the Broncos' corners must hold their own. ... The Broncos average 4.8 yards per carry, but RB Travis Henry could find the going difficult against the Steelers' stout run defense. Look for some play-action from QB Jay Cutler, who really needs someone to step up opposite Brandon Marshall. Cutler will need to stay patient because popping big plays against Pittsburgh doesn't happen often.
KEY INJURIES: Steelers: WR Hines Ward (knee), WR Santonio Holmes (hamstring), NT Casey Hampton (thigh) and SS Troy Polamalu (abdomen) are all expected to return to the starting lineup. Broncos: Walker (knee) is practicing a bit, but still uncertain; Bailey (quadriceps) is day-to-day.
FAST FACTS: The Steelers' plus-85 point differential is second only to New England's plus-138. ... Bailey (40) and teammates Dre' Bly (34) are first and second among active cornerbacks for most interceptions since 1999.
--NT Casey Hampton practiced on Thursday for the first time this week and will return to start in Denver, although Chris Hoke likely will sub for him a lot. Hampton missed the last game Oct. 7 with a hamstring injury.
--WR Hines Ward has practiced all week and will return to start Sunday. Ward missed the last two games with a sprained knee. He's missed just five games in his 10-year career.
--SS Troy Polamalu practiced all week and will return to start after missing the past game with torn rib cartilage. Polamalu leads the Steelers with five passes defensed.
--WR Santonio Holmes practiced all week and will return to start after missing the past game with a torn rib cartilage. Holmes averages 20.4 yards on his 14 receptions, the only receiver in the league over 20 with as many as 14 catches.
--CB Ike Taylor is having his best season, but he no longer covers the opponent's best receiver. He did that last year against Denver and Javon Walker smoked him for 134 yards and two TDs on six catches.
--WR Brandon Stokley will continue to start in Javon Walker's spot. Walker will miss a few weeks with a knee injury. Stokley is most comfortable in the slot, and will move there in three receiver sets. In two starts Stokley has three catches for 34 yards.
--WR Glenn Martinez will continue to be a big part of the offense with Javon Walker out. Martinez has been the third receiver, and had six catches for 70 yards against San Diego.
--QB Jay Cutler's numbers will take a hit as long as Javon Walker is out with a knee injury. Cutler's two biggest games of the season were in the first two weeks when Walker was healthy. In the last two games with Walker out of the lineup he has 363 yards.
--CB Champ Bailey was uncertain if he could play against Pittsburgh after missing another practice with a quadriceps injury. The Broncos hope he can practice by Friday and play against Pittsburgh.
--WR Rod Smith hasn't practiced yet, although he is eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list. He had offseason hip surgery and will need time to get into football shape. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said he would have a better idea at midseason if Smith will be able to practice.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
The Steelers are favored to win in Denver for the first time that anyone can remember, and they are leery about it.
Yes, they have a big advantage over the Broncos on the ground, where the Steelers rank No. 2 and the Broncos dead last. And, yes, they are more experienced, especially at quarterback. Pittsburgh defenders, off to a fast start with 17 sacks in five games, believe they can rattle young Jay Cutler.
But they also know they were underdogs in the AFC championship game and won, and they were favored at home to the Broncos last year and lost.
"I know a lot of people make a big deal out of this team being no good," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "Actually, they're pretty doggone good. Just because they're giving up a lot of rushing yards doesn't mean they're not a good defense. They've got a lot of big-name guys, especially in the secondary, who are going to get after it.
"We're going to need our best game to be able to go out there and be productive."
The area the Steelers are most concerned is in their passing game. The Broncos have Champ Bailey and Dre Bly at cornerback and the NFL's top-ranked pass defense. The Steelers know Denver will bring a safety down and try to disrupt their ground game and tempt them to pass.
"Any time you get two great cornerbacks who had a lot of interceptions through their careers, it's definitely something to look at," said receiver Hines Ward. "But we're not going to shy away from one person."
Opposing quarterbacks have a 96.2 passer rating against the Broncos, though, with just four interceptions and only nine sacks.
"What they do so well on defense now is what we call a Sticky Sam," Roethlisberger explained. "They bring everybody up and they blitz everybody. If they do throw that at us, we're going to have to block it up and protect it and find a way to beat it."
Already reeling from a three-game losing streak, the Denver Broncos lost receiver Javon Walker for at least a few weeks.
Walker will have surgery on his ailing right knee, the same knee that he had surgery on in 2005 when he tore his ACL.
"The doctors don't think it's very serious, but serious enough to go in there and clean it out," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "He's been off it for a few weeks and it hasn't got much better."
Walker had already missed two games with the injury. He returned to practice Monday, Denver's first after its bye week. Shanahan said Walker practiced at full speed and thought he would be ready to play Sunday against Pittsburgh.
But Walker was limited in practice on Wednesday. He traveled to Houston on Thursday to have the surgery.
"He's been kind of hobbling around the last few weeks," receiver Brandon Stokley said. "He gave it a go and you could tell something just wasn't right."
Walker had 230 yards in his first three games, including two 100-yard games to start the season.
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