Pittsburgh Steelers (6-7) at Carolina Panthers (6-7)
GAME SNAPSHOTKICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Dick Enberg, Randy Cross
SERIES: 4th meeting. Steelers lead the series 2-1 that began in 1996. They are 0-1 in Carolina, where they first played the Panthers in 1996. They last met Dec. 15, 2002 in Heinz field, where the Steelers won 30-14. They are a popular matchup in the preseason, where they have played each of the past four years and eight times since 1997.
2006 RANKINGS: Steelers: offense 6th (14th rush, 8th pass); defense 9th (5th rush, 13th pass). Panthers: offense 16th (21st rush, 12th pass); defense 10th (14th rush, 10th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers need a huge game out of DEs Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker getting in the face of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. Carolina has been besieged by hamstring injuries in the secondary and will have a difficult time keeping tabs on anyone downfield for long. The good news for the Panthers is Roethlisberger's protection has been spotty all season, and he can't count on a big game from RB Willie Parker, who is averaging just 45.8 rushing yards and 3.0 yards per carry on the road. QB Chris Weinke appears likely to make his second consecutive start for Carolina. He showed the ability to be efficient before the Panthers fell behind and he was forced to throw against nickel and dime coverages. For Weinke to be effective, he must get more help from the struggling running game, and rookie RB DeAngelo Williams could get increased touches with DeShaun Foster not producing behind shaky offensive line play.
FAST FACTS: Steelers: Are 93-7-1 under coach Bill Cowher when rushing the ball at least 35 times. ... Are 10-1 in their past 11 games against the NFC. Panthers: Peppers has 14.0 sacks in his past 14 games, but none in his past four games. ... Williams has 445 yards from scrimmage in the past four games.
--SS Troy Polamalu said he will miss his third consecutive game because of a torn MCL. They are the only games he's missed in his four-year career.
--WR Santonio Holmes will make his second consecutive start at split end because Cedrick Wilson's high ankle sprain will keep him out of a second straight game.
--WR Hines Ward, who will return to start after missing the past two games following knee surgery, needs 184 yards to become the second Steeler to reach 8,000 yards receiving. John Stallworth had 8,723 yards.
--QB Ben Roethlisberger has thrown one interception in his past two games, his second fewest over a two-game period this season since he threw none in consecutive games against Kansas City and Atlanta.
--RB Willie Parker not only is running more this season than he did in his first year as a starter in 2005, he's also catching more passes. Parker has 29 receptions; he had 18 all of last season.
--QB Jake Delhomme did not throw Thursday or Friday because of a sprained thumb, and has been downgraded from questionable to doubtful.
--G Mike Wahle was added to the injury report as questionable with a lingering shoulder injury. He did not practice Thursday, and he was added to the injury report as questionable. This is a problem that has been bothering Wahle for most of the season.
--CB Ken Lucas returned to practice Thursday, and there's a chance he will start in what amounts to a must-win game for the Panthers on Sunday against Pittsburgh. Lucas has been battling hamstring problems most of the season and is lacking a bit of confidence.
--LB Brandon Jamison (hamstring) was upgraded to probable for Sunday's game against Pittsburgh.
--RB Nick Goings missed his second consecutive day of practice with a shoulder injury.
--TE Kris Mangum did not practice Thursday because of a hip injury, and has been downgraded to doubtful.
--WR Taye Biddle (groin) practiced Thursday, but he remains questionable for Sunday's game. Don't be surprised if Biddle winds up returning punts for Carolina this week.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Coach Bill Cowher turned mum Thursday, one day after he elaborated on his possible retirement decision during a conference call with media in Charlotte, N.C.
A Steelers spokesman on Thursday said he refused media requests in Pittsburgh for Cowher to talk after practice because he knew what everyone wanted to talk about: the coach's future. Cowher is normally available to brief the press after practice upon request.
Cowher has basically declined to discuss his future with the media in Pittsburgh but twice over the past week became more expansive and thoughtful about it with those outside of Pittsburgh.
Last week, he talked to the NFL Network's Cris Collinsworth about his possible plans. Collinsworth quoted Cowher as saying, "If I go to Carolina, I'm going to get away. I'm not going there to be Mr. Football. If I do that, I want to be with the Pittsburgh Steelers."
Cowher, responding to a question about that conversation, said, "That's an interpretation. I guess if I go to Carolina, I guess that's what it would be."
He then said he has not made up his mind about what he will do after the season.
On Wednesday, he told the media in Charlotte, "There will be something at the end of the year. I'll sit back and put a lot of thought into it and make a decision accordingly. Right now my focus is purely on trying to find a way to win these last three games and see where that takes us."
Speculation about Cowher's his future with the Steelers started after he and his wife purchased a $2.5 million home in Raleigh, N.C., in March.
Kaye and their youngest daughter, Lindsay, moved to Raleigh, where Lindsay is a sophomore in high school. Bill Cowher has visited them three times there during the season, most recently over the past weekend after the Steelers played the previous Thursday night.
Cowher told the Charlotte media he planned on making his home in Raleigh.
"There's no question about that," said Cowher, a Pittsburgh native who attended North Carolina State. "Obviously, my wife and I both grew up in the Raleigh area. We love the Raleigh area. My daughter is going to school there now, and that's definitely from our long-term respect what our view was."
Cowher said the results of his team's season would have no bearing on his decision.
"A lot of deep thought will be put into it," he said. "It won't be a knee-jerk reaction. It will be something that is well thought out, and a decision will be made accordingly."
Cowher has three games left in his 15th NFL season. After winning the Super Bowl under Cowher in February, the Steelers head into their final three games with a 6-7 record and with only a sliver of hope for making the playoffs.
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme was held out of practice again Thursday and Friday, and was downgraded to doubtful.
Coach John Fox said Delhomme did not attempt to throw at all before practice.
"We're taking it day by day," Fox said.
Chris Weinke took the majority of reps in practice all week and looks to be the starter Sunday against the Steelers.
Rookie quarterbak Brett Basanez will back up Weinkie.
"I approach it like that every week," Weinke said. "I'll continue to come in and prepare and be ready to go if I'm the guy on Sunday."
Weinke threw for 423 yards last week against the Giants, but he also had three costly interceptions.
"Anytime you lose, it's never fun," Weinke said. "That's the bottom line. For me, I felt like I had a good week of preparation. After not being out there for a long time, it was fun to get back out there. I love to compete. I had my opportunity to compete on Sunday.
"We did some good things, but we didn't make enough plays. When it comes down to it, I can't turn the ball over three times and expect to come up with a victory against a good defense."