KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
SERIES: 23rd meeting. Steelers lead the series 13-9, but they've won just once in the past five meetings in the previous nine seasons, including twice in the AFC championship game. Pittsburgh is 3-2 in New England. The Patriots are 3-1 in the playoffs. The Steelers last won in New England 10 years ago, 24-21 in overtime.
PREDICTION: Patriots 27-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Patriots certainly aren't young on defense, and the secret is out that the way to compete with New England is to be physical on the ground, control the clock and try to have a shot at the end. Steelers RB Willie Parker is second in the NFL with 1,093 rushing yards, but his 3.8-yard average (3.0 the past three games) is less than stellar and he has had fumbling issues of late. QB Ben Roethlisberger will complement Parker with short passes to help control the ball. ... After three straight night games, Patriots coach Bill Belichick gave his team an extra day of rest this week. Steelers SS Troy Polamalu is expected to return, but that won't keep Patriots QB Tom Brady from attacking a secondary that is the most vulnerable aspect of a very strong defense. Brady has to be way of the ability of the Steelers' linebackers to apply pressure and Pittsburgh leads the AFC with 33 sacks. Now is the time to start getting the ground game more involved.
KEY INJURIES: Steelers: None. Patriots: OG Stephen Neal (shoulder) is questionable.
FAST FACTS: Steelers WR Hines Ward has 64 career touchdown catches, breaking John Stallworth's franchise record of 63. He is 122 receiving yards short of Stallworth's franchise mark of 8,723. ... Patriots WR Randy Moss' 17 TD receptions ties a career high and is five short of Jerry Rice's single-season NFL record.
--RB Najeh Davenport, who missed last Sunday's game because of swelling in his right foot, practiced for the first time on Thursday and likely will play Sunday.
--QB Ben Roethlisberger's record as a starter of 38-14 (.731) is second among active NFL quarterbacks only to Tom Brady.
--LB James Harrison was named NFL Defensive Player of the Month for November, when he had 5.5 sacks, an interception, five forced fumbles and one recovery. His 8.5 sacks lead the team.
--WR Hines Ward is the first Steeler to top 700 receptions. He has 705.
--K Jeff Reed needs eight points to become the third-highest scoring Steeler in history, climbing over Franco Harris, who scored 600.
--After a day off, the Patriots returned to practice on Thursday. All the players were present for the media-access portion of practice. OL Ryan O'Callaghan was wearing a red, non-contact jersey.
--Three players were wearing black jerseys at Thursday's practice -- LB Eric Alexander, OL Wesley Britt and QB Matt Gutierrez -- signifying that they were the practice players of the week for the week leading up to the Ravens game.
--Steelers safety Anthony Smith guaranteed a win over the Patriots on Sunday and some of the players voiced their opinion about that Thursday in the locker room.
"If you went back and documented every time someone called their own shot, I mean, what are the chances?" Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel asked. "You're going to win or you're going to lose. Either way I don't think that prediction will have much bearing on the outcome."
Junior Seau added: "Obviously, there is obviously a build-up before the game and that's the way this started. There is going to be talk every week. We're not going to pay attention to that. We're going to try to do what we do every week, which is work. Hopefully that will be good enough come Sunday. Come Sunday, all the talk will be between the white lines. It always is."
--S Rashad Baker (ankle) had limited participation in Thursday's practice. Baker didn't play last week against Baltimore, allowing rookie Brandon Meriweather to get on the field.
--G Stephen Neal had limited participation in Thursday's practice. Neal was replaced by Russ Hochstein last week and has been battling a shoulder injury all season.
--DE Ty Warren (thigh) had limited participation in Thursday's practice. Warren is expected to start on Sunday versus the Ravens.
INSIDE THE CAMPS: Steelers:
Three-time Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu looked as though he was on track to return to Pittsburgh's lineup until he missed practice Thursday.
Polamalu, who has missed the past two games with a sprained knee, went through a complete practice on Wednesday. He said Thursday, however, he was involved in a collision and it aggravated his injury.
"We'll see where he is tomorrow," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We'll list his status like we do every Friday."
Not having Polamalu, or at least not having him at his best, would be a blow to Pittsburgh's attempts to slow down the NFL's most prolific offense in New England. Polamalu's play often is cited by opposing teams as a key to making the Steelers' confusing, zone-blitz defense go.
He hops and scoots from one place to another before the snap of the ball, rarely giving away where he will end up. His replacement, Tyrone Carter, is not that kind of player. While they won their two games without Polamalu, they would much prefer to have him in the lineup Sunday when they try to stop the Patriots' runaway machine.
On the other hand, two other injured players continued to practice on Sunday. Left tackle Marvel Smith and wide receiver Santonio Holmes, each of whom also missed the past two games, have made it through two practices this week.
Kelley Washington came to the Patriots expecting to be one of Tom Brady's options in the passing game. But with an offseason binge that saw New England stock up at receiver by obtaining Wes Welker, Donte' Stallworth and Randy Moss, Washington entered training camp just trying to make the team. Once it was clear that Washington wasn't going to be one of the Patriots' top four receivers, he switched his focus to special teams.
The transition wasn't easy at first, but Washington has learned to look at special teams like he would offense or defense.
"I played on special teams sparingly in Cincinnati but it's something that a lot of guys can't do," Washington said. "You really have to just swallow your pride sometimes. If you're an offensive player or a defensive player and you're not really getting a lot of playing time on that side of the ball, special teams is a way to contribute. It's an important phase of the game so you need those guys who can be versatile and do different things."
Washington's role on special teams has been a win-win situation for both him and the Patriots. After 12 games, Washington is second on the Patriots with six special teams tackles. He has excelled at being a gunner on kickoff and punt coverage, while learning to embrace his role as a special teams ace. This could help Washington's chances of returning to the team in 2008, despite being owed a $4 million roster bonus in the offseason.
"I really enjoy it. I think it's a big facet of the game," Washington said about playing on special teams. "You have offense, defense and, of course, special teams, so I enjoy going out there and playing. I like to play with a lot of energy and get the crowd into it. I just enjoy going out there and helping the team, whether it be making a tackle or blocking for someone. It's something I've really grown into a role and I really enjoy playing on the special teams side of the ball."
Of course, it can't be easy for any receiver to sit by and watch one of the most prolific offenses ever rack up points like a pinball machine and not want to join in on the fun. In the Patriots' first 12 games, Washington had yet to catch a pass on the season. And while Washington is content with his role as a special teamer, he does admit that he thinks about playing receiver when he sees his counterparts out on the field making plays.
"I do think about it but there are only so many receivers on the team and so many balls to go around," Washington said. "You have to help the team in other ways and special teams is definitely a way guys can get on the field and in my case, make the team. I would love to play receiver too but on the other hand, I'm happy just helping out where the team needs me."
Interacting with fans is a way Washington deals with the violence that comes along with playing special teams. There's a reason why most players don't jump at the chance to play on kick coverage: it's not much fun. So Washington uses jawing with the fans to help prepare himself for the violent nature of life as a gunner in the NFL.
"It's not the easiest thing to run down and hit a wedge or make a tackle on a kickoff," Washington said. "You have to get yourself into it and emotionally ready to go down there and be physical. That's just a way for me to get myself into the game. Other players like (Larry) Izzo are very quiet and just go about their business on the field. Different guys have different ways to get their motor running before the game. It's just something I've always done."