SERIES: 20th meeting. The Steelers lead all-time series 12-7, but the Patriots have won the last three including the 2001 AFC Championship Game played in Pittsburgh. The teams have met in the postseason three times since 1996 with New England winning twice. Pittsburgh won seven of eight meetings between 1989-1997.
2004 RANKINGS: Patriots: offense 11th (11th rush, 14th pass); defense 12th (14th rush, 17th pass). Steelers: offense 20th (5th rush, 25th pass); defense 6th (10th rush, 7th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Patriots are expected to be without injured WRs Deion Branch and Troy Brown again, but that won't keep them from attacking CB Willie Williams, who will start just his third game in three seasons while replacing injured CB Chad Scott. Another question mark is NT Chris Hoke replacing injured NT Casey Hampton, who was vital in clogging the middle of the Steelers' 3-4 alignment. The Patriots defense has allowed just seven touchdowns in 23 red-zone possessions by opponents, but the Steelers have scored touchdowns on 82.4 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line. Rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger will face his most complex defense to date, but he must build on the team's red-zone success to keep this game close down to the wire.
FAST FACTS: Patriots: Are 6-0 for the first time in franchise history. ... Are 19-0 when QB Tom Brady has a passer rating of at least 100.0. ... Have won 11 consecutive games when they have a 100-yard rusher. Steelers: The five teams they have defeated have a combined 10-23 record. ... Are 7-6 following bye weeks under coach Bill Cowher. ... Lead the series 11-5.
P Josh Miller will return this week to Pittsburgh, where he played for eight seasons before being released by the club following the 2003 season. Miller has punted superbly for the Patriots, who benefited from the Steelers' decision to acquire Chris Gardocki. "They said Chris Gardocki wasn't better than I was," Miller explained when asked about being cut. "They said they weren't getting an upgrade. My special teams coach was new and he had Gardocki in Indianapolis and our offensive coordinator, Ken Whisenhunt, was a special teams coach in Cleveland and had Gardocki there. They just liked him. I thought that was screwed up, but it is what it is. I'm very happy to be here. It's nice to be where you're wanted."
WR Troy Brown has been questionable ever since injuring his shoulder in New England's Week 3 win over Buffalo, but has not played and isn't likely to step back on the field in Pittsburgh. The last time Brown was in Pittsburgh to play the Steelers, he returned a Josh Miller punt for a touchdown and scooped up a blocked field goal before flipping it to Antwan Harris, who raced for a touchdown. Those two scores helped New England capture the AFC championship.
QB Tom Brady has deservedly developed a reputation as a clutch performer who thrives in the game's biggest spots. His two Super Bowl game-winning drives engineered in the waning seconds attest to that. But this season, Brady's fourth quarter performances have been substandard. He is 13th in the AFC in fourth-quarter passer rating at 61.1, which is well below his overall mark of 95.3.
S Rodney Harrison, who is often listed among the NFL dirtiest players, not surprisingly leads the Patriots with five penalties this season. He has been called for roughing the passer when he rolled into the quarterback's legs, illegal use of hands, offside, personal foul and illegal contact. With the emphasis on preventing illegal defensive contact, it's also no surprise that Ty Law leads the way with two of those infractions, which is the most on the team along with Randall Gay's two.
RT Tom Ashworth had the best Halloween costume as a child according to a quick poll of all-time best costumes. Ashworth once dressed up as the Headless Horseman and wore a real pumpkin on his head. "That scared the crap out of people," he said.
RB Duce Staley, listed as probable with a slight knee injury, has practiced all week and says he'll be in top form for Sunday's game.
TE Jay Riemersma could see a different kind of action Sunday with WR Lee Mays hurting. Riemersma likely will split out more often to replace Mays.
DE Kimo von Oelhoffen did not practice at nose tackle all week. Chris Hoke will start in place of injured Casey Hampton, but von Oelhoffen still could replace Hoke if he's ineffective.
CB Ricardo Colclough, a rookie, did not get the start to replace injured Chad Scott. That went to veteran Willie Williams. But Colclough will play in their nickel and dime defenses, which they may use more often than normal on Sunday.
LB Kendrell Bell practiced all week for the first time this season, but he will not start on Sunday. The target for Bell's return is next week against Philadelphia.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Teams have tried blitzing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and been burned, and they've tried sitting back and covering his receivers and they've been burned too. Miami actually had the most success stopping the Patriots passing attack and they did it by going light on the blitzes.
But when the Patriots head to Pittsburgh Sunday, they expect to see a heavy dose of the Steelers' famed zone blitz that is guided by architect Dick LeBeau. The difference in the Steelers' blitzes and those of other teams is the experience they have running them since they have had coaching continuity over the years.
"They run it very effectively," Brady said. "They have been running it for an awfully long time. All the players know how to run the defense. They know the strengths and weaknesses of and how to disguise their blitz zones. They have multiple variations of them. They are very aggressive. It is a fast defense that moves really well and attacks the ball. I think some teams mix in the blitz zone and aren't as good as they are. With a team that runs it as much as they do, they can make some plays blitzing because they know actually what to do.
Brady torched the Bills, who blitzed him on nearly every snap, by getting rid of the ball quickly or getting max protection and shredding the Buffalo secondary down the field. He had some similar success against the Cardinals' aggressive blitz-heavy game plan.
Dealing with the different blitzes is a week-to-week thing and something Brady and the offense are constantly working to perfect.
"I think we are trying to get rid of the ball quickly," he said. "I think our guys do a great job of not letting guys run free. I watch a lot of other game tapes and I see a lot of other quarterbacks stand there with the ball in their hands and guys running free on them. That rarely and probably never happens with our guys because they always know what to do and they know whom to block. It is not like we have one or two different protections. We probably have 20 to 25 different protections that they are all running. Our guys have to know what to do and then ultimately they have to go and block them."
That will be a challenge in Pittsburgh this week in a hostile, raucous Heinz Field.
The Steelers will play their biggest regular-season game in Pittsburgh this late in the season since they took a 5-1 record into a 2001 game at Heinz Field against another defending Super Bowl champion, Baltimore.
They lost that game. In fact this will be the third time in four years Pittsburgh will play the defending champs. They lost the previous two, including the opener at New England in 2002.
This is a chance for the Steelers to break into the upper crust of the AFC, to tie the Patriots for the best record in the conference at 6-1 and re-establish themselves as Super Bowl contenders after a down season in 2003.
"I think the game itself will take on its magnitude and that's a good thing," coach Bill Cowher said. "We have created a situation for ourselves and we have been here before. We have some veteran guys that have been there before."
The Steelers have their running game back to where they want it, they have the hottest rookie quarterback in 20 years and their defense has returned to an aggressive-big play style that disappeared last season. They feel they're ready to make their run over the next two weeks against the only unbeaten teams left in the league, New England and Philadelphia, both at home in Heinz Field.
"They're a great team," said Chris Hoke, who will replace injured Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton. "But on any given Sunday, every team can be beat. They've made the least amount of mistakes in every game. They've played well. This is our opportunity to break that streak."
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