SERIES: 20th regular-season meeting, Steelers lead the series that began in 1972, 12-7, including a 3-2 record in New England. However, the Patriots are 3-1 against the Steelers in the postseason and have won six of their past seven overall meetings, including 34-13 in New England last season.
PREDICTION: Patriots 24-23
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Steelers are still struggling to hit their stride offensively because the running game isn't as strong as in recent years. RB Willie Parker continues to be bothered by a sore knee and the ground game is ranked just 24th in the league. So QB Ben Roethlisberger will again have to take to the air to move the chains, and the Patriots' secondary is certainly vulnerable. New England will counter by trying to confuse the Steelers' offensive line with stunts and blitzes in an effort to get in Roethlisberger's face quickly. ... The Steelers lead the league in all three major defensive categories and are second with 37 sacks, but the Patriots will have a largely one-dimensional offense geared toward the passing game. QB Tom Brady passed for 399 yards in last year's meeting, and Cassel has far better mobility. If he gets the protection Brady enjoyed last year, Cassel can have similar success against Pittsburgh's secondary. He is reading defenses better each week and is even beginning to connect with WR Randy Moss on more vertical shots.
KEY INJURIES: Steelers: DE Brett Keisel (knee) is out; CB Bryant McFadden (forearm) is practicing and may play; Parker is questionable; LT Marvel Smith (back) is out. Patriots: RB LaMont Jordan (calf) is practicing and could play this week; OLB Adalius Thomas (reported broken arm) is out.
-- CB Deshea Townsend practiced again on Thursday and he could play Sunday against New England. Townsend missed the past two games with a hamstring injury and was listed as doubtful for this game by coach Mike Tomlin on Tuesday.
-- CB Bryant McFadden, who has missed the past five games with a broken forearm, has practiced the past two weeks and should play Sunday.
-- TE Matt Spaeth will continue to wear a cast on his right wrist, where he chipped a bone two weeks ago.
-- LT Marvel Smith will miss his seventh straight game with a back problem. The Steelers continue to keep him on the active roster with hopes it clears up.
-- CB Ike Taylor likely will shadow New England WR Randy Moss from side to side on Sunday, as he has done with other top opposing receivers in the past.
-- LB Tedy Bruschi missed portions of Friday's practice with a knee injury. He was also limited Wednesday and Thursday, so his status for Sunday's game is uncertain.
-- DE Richard Seymour missed his second consecutive practice Thursday with a knee injury. He returned to practice but was limited on Friday. His status for Sunday is uncertain.
-- DE Ty Warren was limited Friday due to a groin injury and could be in danger of missing Sunday's game.
-- RB LaMont Jordan was limited Friday for the third day in a row with a calf injury. The good news is Jordan participated somewhat after not practicing at all the past two weeks.
-- CB Mike Richardson practiced Friday despite a concussion and should be ready to go this weekend. The Patriots are somewhat thin at cornerback and could use all the help they can get.
The Steelers re-signed halfback Najeh Davenport on Thursday because of Willie Parker's status with a knee injury.
Davenport will add depth to a team that has only two healthy halfbacks, Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell. Carey Davis, their starting fullback, also can play halfback and tight end Sean McHugh can play fullback.
Parker re-injured his knee and left in the third quarter of Pittsburgh's last game, against Cincinnati Nov. 20. It has swelled and he practiced only lightly on Thursday after not practicing on Wednesday.
Davenport, who played for the Steelers in 2006 and 2007, was released by them in June, then signed after the fourth game of the season because of injuries to Parker and rookie halfback Rashard Mendenhall. He was released Nov. 9.
Parker has missed five games with knee and shoulder injuries. His MCL was sprained in the third game and he missed the next four. He returned, only to injure his shoulder in his first game back. After missing one game, he returned to play the past two but left again with swelling in his knee.
The Steelers released rookie Roy Lewis, who was signed from their practice squad last week.
Moore likely will make his fifth start of the season Sunday at New England. Russell will serve as the short-yardage back.
Not only is he making it look easy. He's having a blast in the process.
"It is a lot of fun as a quarterback to get out there and throw the ball around and throw the ball 94 times the last two weeks," Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel said. "That is what all quarterbacks hope to do is to throw the ball and get some completions. To be able to go down there and get a win in a division game was big for us too. That is always fun."
Cassel, of course, is referring to his whirlwind performance the past two weeks in which he eclipsed the 400-yard mark each time and subsequently was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week. Cassel's solid effort against Miami this past Sunday put the Patriots in position to make a run for the postseason, even though they'd be out of the hunt if the season ended today.
After feasting on the Jets and Dolphins, Cassel will get to try his hand against the No. 1 defense in the conference when the Pittsburgh Steelers visit New England on Sunday afternoon.
"They are a great team defensively," Cassel said. "They are No. 1 in almost every category from red zone to third down. They have a lot of sacks. They create pressure with their fronts. They give you multiple looks and multiple personnel groups.
"It is going to be quite a challenge for us this week. They are a good defense and we respect them for the type of defense they play. Week in and week out they are very aggressive and are a very good defense."
Cassel can attribute a part of his success against New York and Miami to the fact he faced those teams for the second time, perhaps allowing offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to open up the playbook in the rematch.
On Sunday, Cassel will face Pittsburgh for the first time, so this could be a different story.
"There is really no telling to be completely honest because the game plans were so different," Cassel said. "I would like to say that of course I would be able to go out there and execute like I did the past two weeks but it is all in the past.
"That is something that we can speculate all we want but I really can't answer that question honestly without having the same exact game plan and playing the same opponent."