KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf
SERIES: 19th meeting. Jaguars lead the series, 10-8. The Jaguars have won the last two games, a 23-17 overtime victory in 2005 when Rashean Mathis ran an interception back for a touchdown to win the game and 9-0 last year in a defensive battle when Ben Roethlisberger just returned from an appendectomy and appeared to be off his game.
PREDICTION: Steelers 24-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Jaguars enter with the AFC's best running game, and the Steelers' ability to contain RBs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew took a significant hit with the season-ending injury of DE Aaron Smith. If the ground game is working, the Steelers are in trouble. Jaguars QB David Garrard has thrown just one interception this season, while the Steelers have just eight picks -- although the return of SS Troy Polamalu would certainly help. ... It's not often the Steelers know they need to sustain drives because they're facing an equally dangerous ground game on the other side. Their chances of running the ball effectively improve with DT Marcus Stroud and MLB Mike Peterson out, and the Jaguars' already mediocre pass rush is depleted without DE Reggie Hayward. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger has been harassed all season, but should have ample time to hurt Jacksonville's weak secondary.
KEY INJURIES: Jaguars: Stroud (ankle) was placed on Injured Reserve on Wednesday; Peterson (broken hand) and Hayward (groin) are out. Steelers: Smith (torn biceps) will be replaced by Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason; Polamalu (knee) should return barring another setback.
FAST FACTS: Steelers RB Willie Parker leads the NFL with 1,217 rushing yards. No Steeler has finished a season as the league leader since Bill Dudley 1946. ... The Steelers clinch the AFC North win a win and a loss by Cleveland. ... The Jaguars clinch a playoff berth with a win and a win by Tennessee.
--CB Rashean Mathis didn't practice for the second consecutive day Thursday. He was listed as having a groin injury after he was listed as not practicing Wednesday because of a coach's decision.
--DE Jeremy Mincey didn't practice Thursday because of a hamstring injury. He also was out Wednesday.
--G Vince Manuwai returned to practice Thursday after not practicing Wednesday because of a foot injury.
--RB Fred Taylor returned to practice Thursday after being listed as not practicing Wednesday because of a coaching decision.
--S Reggie Nelson was limited in practice Thursday with a hamstring injury.
--DE Paul Spicer was limited in practice Thursday with a shoulder injury.
--WR Santonio Holmes, who caught one pass last Sunday after missing two weeks with a high ankle sprain, said it's still not right.
--WR Hines Ward returned to practice on Thursday and is expected to play Sunday. He did not practice Wednesday, but that has become the norm for him this season.
--OT Marvel Smith returned to practice on Thursday and is expected to play Sunday. He did not practice Wednesday, but that's become the norm for him this season.
--RB Willie Parker has not run well against the Jaguars. In two starts against them the previous two seasons, he has 75 yards on 32 carries.
--QB Ben Roethlisberger has two previous starts against Jacksonville with very different results: He had a near-perfect 158.0 passer rating in a 2004 victory and a 38.7 passer rating in a 2006 loss.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
There seems to be no easy answer to the Rashean Mathis puzzle.
The last time the Jaguars played in Pittsburgh in 2005, cornerback Mathis intercepted a Tommy Maddox pass in overtime and returned it 41 yards for the game winning touchdown.
That's when Mathis' career was on an upward curve. Last year, he intercepted eight passes and made the Pro Bowl for the first time.
But this year, his progress has stalled and he's not likely to return to the Pro Bowl. He had an interception in the opener against Tennessee, but he hasn't had once since although he came close to one against Carolina when he almost made a diving catch.
And his status for the Pittsburgh game is uncertain because he didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday.
So what is Mathis' problem? Is he hurt? Is he having an off year?
Nobody knows for sure and Mathis isn't talking.
Following his policy of the last several weeks, Mathis wasn't in the locker room during the media session Wednesday and Thursday even though league policy calls for players to give interviews at least one day a week if they're requested.
The Jaguars still had enough confidence in Mathis to have him shadow Carolina's Steve Smith all over the field Sunday. Smith caught six passes for only 44 yards, but quarterback Vinny Testaverde was so off target that it's hard to judge how effective Mathis was.
Coach Jack Del Rio suggested Mathis doesn't have as many interceptions because teams aren't throwing at him.
"I think he's seen less and less action (passes) this year. Rashean is a good football player. He'll continue to be a good football player for a long time in Jacksonville," Del Rio said.
But when Del Rio was asked to name some Jaguars worthy of Pro Bowl recognition, he didn't mention Mathis.
One problem is that Mathis doesn't appear to be 100 percent. He was listed as questionable before the Buffalo game with a groin injury, but he played. He was rested in the fourth period against Carolina and hasn't practiced since the game.
On Wednesday, he didn't practice because of what was listed as a coaching decision, which is supposed to mean he's not hurt. But on Thursday, he was listed as not practicing with a groin injury. He was on the field during the media viewing time, but didn't have his helmet.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did not practice for the second straight day Thursday because of a sore right shoulder and his coaches were not offering any clues as to whether he will practice Friday, Saturday or even play on Sunday.
"All those questions have to be to Mike," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said after practice.
Mike Tomlin did not talk after practice but sent word through a Steelers spokesman that nothing had changed from Wednesday and that he will have an update on Roethlisberger's injury Friday after practice.
But his absence from practice seemed at least to last one day longer than the coach had expected when on Tuesday Tomlin said, "Ben Roethlisberger has a sore shoulder, which may limit him some on Wednesday."
Tomlin added that, "I don't want to make more out of it than what it is. It is just sore."
Charlie Batch took all the snaps with the first team the past two days as Roethlisberger watched in grey sweats.
"Charlie's ready," Arians said, if it's necessary to count on their veteran backup quarterback. "Charley gets so much work every Wednesday, for that reason."
Roethlisberger has not missed a game this season and missed very few snaps, most of them in the early season when Batch mopped up in lopsided victories.
The last game Roethlisberger missed was the first of the 2006 season because of an appendectomy five days before the opener.
"I think more or less it comes down to Friday," Batch said of the decision on whether a player will go or not on Sunday. "That's been my experience over the years. If you don't practice on Friday your chances of playing are pretty limited."