Big game -- sorta speaking

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> On most Tuesday afternoons, Bill Cowher engages local reporters in a round of coachspeak.<br><br> Most fans understand the concept that keeps coaches out of controversy and trouble.<br><br> But before particularly big games, Cowher changes gears a little bit. He shifts into the role of big-game underdog with something we'll call sorta-speak.

For example, instead of directly inciting fans to become drunk and unruly, he sorta encourages them.

"It's a four o'clock game and we're looking forward to the atmosphere that goes along with that," Cowher said of Sunday's game against the New England Patriots.

The Patriots enter the game with a league-record 21-game winning streak that includes the playoffs and championship game last year. It also includes a record 18 consecutive regular-season wins.

So, it's a big game, a huge game, isn't it?

Well, sorta.

"Obviously, it's a big game for our team," Cowher said in his introductory remarks.

But when asked later in the press conference, Cowher said otherwise, that it's sorta a big game.

"It's our seventh game. I don't think you should look at it any other way," Cowher said. "I think the game itself will take on its own magnitude, and that's a good thing. We've been here before. We've had some veteran guys there before. Certainly, we want to stay a game ahead in our division. That to me is the most significant part of this game. It has nothing to do with New England and what they have going on with them. It's more about us and our opportunity to stay in first place in this division."

The Steelers lead the AFC North Division with a 5-1 record, one game ahead of the Baltimore Ravens, who hold the tiebreaker because of their win against the Steelers.

The Patriots, on the other hand, are 6-0 and coming off a win over the previously undefeated New York Jets to take a one-game lead in the AFC East Division. Because of the potential for a letdown, the Patriots are favored over the rested Steelers by only three points.

Even with their addition of running back Corey Dillon and the Steelers' loss of nose tackle Casey Hampton, the public believes the game will be decided by a field goal. So should Cowher celebrate the possibility of knocking off the king? Or should he downplay it in order to keep his team on an even keel?

"There's nothing to downplay," he said. "It's a big game. It's why you're in this business, to play in games like this. There are a lot more left to be played after this game, too. There's a lot of football left to be played."

It sounded like so much coachspeak, but then Cowher got to the point.

"Nothing will be accomplished or defined, sorta speak, with this game," he said in his 13th year of misusing the phrase "so to speak."

And Cowher went on.

"There's a lot of football left, a lot of tough opponents ahead of us, but this is the game we're playing this week and this is the challenge we have, and everything else that goes with it - New England's stature and what they've accomplished - adds to it but for us it's a game we need to win just to stay in first place."

It's a game that will give a more accurate assessment of where the Steelers stand in relation to the NFL's best teams. They've lost the only game they've played against a winning team, but they've rallied around rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and built a foundation against the league's lower echelon.

Cowher was asked if the result of the game will be used as a barometer for the Steelers. He answered in perfectly understandable sorta-speak.

"Will I? No," Cowher said. "Will you guys? Yes."

NOTES - Quarterback Tommy Maddox has been ruled out, along with cornerback Chad Scott, of Sunday's game. Maddox threw 15 passes Monday, but Cowher said "he's not close to practicing but he's making progress." Listed as questionable are inside linebacker Kendrell Bell (groin) and wide receiver Lee Mays (turf toe). Bell practiced Monday and is hoping to see his first action this season. Listed as probable are running backs Duce Staley and Verron Haynes, both with knee injuries. … Cowher said Chris Hoke would replace Hampton, who's on injured reserve. Defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, the Steelers' nose tackle in 2000, will not practice at that position this week.

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