New England Patriots (6-2) at Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET
VENUE: Heinz Field
SURFACE: Natural Grass
TV: NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Andrea Kremer
FOX COVERAGE: GameTrax | Depth Chart | Head-to-Head | Odds
PREDICTION: Steelers 30-21
KEYS TO THE GAME: Even if RB Fred Taylor (toe) manages to return this week, the Patriots can't count on gaining much traction against the league's top run defense. New England has a slew of possession receivers and QB Tom Brady will rely on short drops and yards after the catch - assuming his foot injury isn't serious. The Patriots preached execution this week after a sloppy loss at Cleveland. The Catch-22 for the Steelers is the Patriots' young secondary gives up 268.9 passing yards per game and doesn't get much help from the pass rush (13 sacks through eight games). But with a beat-up offensive line and Bill Belichick game planning on the opposite sideline, do the Steelers want to open themselves to numerous negative plays? The safe bet is to rely on RB Rashard Mendenhall early and soften that secondary for vertical shots to Wallace.
FAST FACTS: The Steelers are 9-0 when WR Mike Wallace catches a touchdown. ... The Patriots are 14-3 against the AFC North during the regular season. ... Mendenhall is averaging 94.3 rushing yards per game at home this season.
Any concern over Tom Brady's sprained foot was surely alleviated Thursday when the Patriots' quarterback returned to the practice field, albeit in limited capacity.
Brady missed Wednesday's practice, causing a minor uproar since the durable quarterback rarely misses any time unless it's for something serious, such as the season-ending knee injury he suffered two years ago.
On Thursday, Brady practiced in a limited capacity and appears ready to take the field Sunday when the Patriots visit Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers in a battle for AFC supremacy. Both teams enter with a 6-2 record, which is tied with several teams for the best in the NFL.
"They're a tenacious defense," Brady said. "I think they've got a lot of real playmakers over there: James Harrison and what he's done (and Troy) Polamalu. They've got a lot of leaders on that defense. (James) Farrior has been there for a long time; we've competed against him. It's a tough place to play at Heinz Field, but we've got to go out there and start working on it today. We've got a lot of crowd noise out there.
"We're kind of ready to get back on the practice field -- everybody is -- after last week."
Brady, of course, wasn't quite as ready Wednesday, but the foot sprain appears to be a thing of the past, or at least something not serious enough to keep him off the field. Other than the games he missed in '08, Brady hasn't sat out since taking over for Drew Bledsoe in 2001.
During that stretch, the Patriots have consistently been one of the league's top teams, and so have the Steelers; both are among the league-leaders in games won in the months of November and December.
"I think we've been winning for a long time; they've been winning for a long time," Brady said. "You win for reasons. I think we're extremely well coached; they're extremely well coached. We try to be tough and physical; they are certainly very tough and physical. They play smart. They make big plays.
"They don't give up big plays. They're good in the kicking game. All those things you need to be a good football team, the Steelers are and they have been. We've got to recognize their strengths and try to play to our strengths, and understand what they don't do as well -- which there are very few of those things -- and maybe try to capitalize on those."
It looks as though the Steelers will be without three starters, two on the offensive line, when they play the New England Patriots Sunday night in a clash of 6-2 division leaders.
Left guard Chris Kemoeatu did not practice again on Thursday and it appears he won't be able to do so on Friday. He has knee and ankle injuries. The Steelers placed left tackle Max Starks on injured reserve with a neck injury this week.
That means they will have two new starting linemen on the left side, Jonathan Scott at tackle and Ramon Foster at guard.
Defensive end Brett Keisel did not practice again on Thursday and looks as though he will miss Sunday's game. Keisel has a hamstring injury that caused him to miss two games before he returned to start Monday night in Cincinnati. His leg reacted poorly, however, and he was forced to leave the game. Nick Eason would start in his place.
The Steelers already are playing without starting defensive end Aaron Smith, who will miss most of the rest of the season with a torn triceps. Ziggy Hood has replaced him.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger watched as his linemen mixed and matched Monday in Cincinnati because of all the injuries, including a bruised shin that temporarily knocked rookie center Maurkice Pouncey from the game, the first snaps he's missed all season.
"That's what this sport is about," Roethlisberger said. "It's a violent sport. It speaks volumes for guys who can step up and play the position, whatever it is and whenever. There were times last week that I was trying to figure out who was at center and who was at guard. Guys were just moving around. I can't say enough for how well those guys are dong up front."
--S Patrick Chung might be ready to play Sunday in Pittsburgh. Chung said his injured knee is feeling better and he's taking the situation "day by day."
--DL Myron Pryor missed practice again Thursday with a back injury and will likely miss Sunday's game in Pittsburgh. Pryor has been battling the injury for the past two weeks.
--G Stephen Neal participated in portions of Thursday's practice despite a shoulder injury. The injury does not appear to be related to the shoulder injuries he's suffered in the past, therefore it's likely he'll play Sunday.
--RB Fred Taylor participated in parts of practice Thursday and might finally make his long-awaited return Sunday despite a nagging toe injury. Taylor hasn't played since Week 2.
--S Jarrad Page missed practice for the second time this week with a calf injury. Barring a miraculous recovery, Page will be out of the lineup again Sunday in Pittsburgh.
--WR Hines Ward needs 68 yards receiving to move past Rod smith and become the fourth-most prolific receiver with one team in NFL history. Ward has 11,322 yards, all with the Steelers. Marvin Harrison leads the list with 14,580 yards with the Colts.
--OT Tony Hills, a fourth-round draft choice in 2008, becomes the top backup tackle on both sides after OT Max Starks was placed on IR. Hills has played in two games in his three seasons with no starts.
--RB Mewelde Moore has practiced the past two days after leaving Monday night's game with a concussion. Moore has 41 yards rushing and caught 11 passes.
--RB Isaac Redman has practiced the past two days after leaving Monday night's game with a concussion. Redman is the second-leading rusher on the team with 119 yards on 29 carries.
--QB Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked only seven times in four games. He was sacked 50 times in 15 games last season and has not been sacked fewer than 46 times in any season since 2006.
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