TV: FOX (Dick Stockton, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver)
SERIES: 75th regular-season meeting. Giants lead series, 48-23-3. The Giants have won three of the last five games, but this will be their first appearance in Pittsburgh since 1991 and their first in the new Heinz Field (which opened in 2001). They are the only team in the NFL that hasn't played at Heinz.
PREDICTION: Giants 24-23
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Steelers have 25 sacks this season without employing a heavy load of blitzes. That could change Sunday against the Giants' strong offensive line as the Steelers attempt to pressure QB Eli Manning before he can look to his deep receiving corps. New York's defense has allowed just three second-half touchdowns this season, so the offense wants to get off to a quick start with the running game setting up the pass to put the Steelers on their heels. ... The Giants have registered six sacks in three different games this season, which is a major concern for the Steelers despite allowing no sacks in Cincinnati last Sunday. QB Ben Roethlisberger, who absorbs a lot of hits in part because he holds onto the ball so long, will no doubt target Giants CB Aaron Ross, who has been beaten for big plays the past two weeks. The Steelers also expect RB Willie Parker to be back in the lineup after missing three games.
FAST FACTS: The Giants have outscored their opponents 73-42 in the second half this season. ... The Steelers are 13-3 in their past 16 games against NFC teams.
--WR Plaxico Burress was drafted in the 11th overall spot of the 2000 first round by the Steelers, played there for five years and then was allowed to walk away when the unrestricted free-agent period began in the spring of 2005. "I guess they didn't need my services anymore," he said, "so yeah, going back there will be different. I don't think it's emotional, just go out, do my best, relax and use my God-given talents."
MLB Antonio Pierce knows the feeling. He played with the Washington Redskins and then walked off to sign with the Giants. "It's a fire that burns like no other," he said, somewhat dramatically. "You always want to make your first team sorry they let you go."
--Head coach Tom Coughlin tried to pass off a question about the lack of passes thrown to starting TE Kevin Boss by saying: "The tight end is in our pass progressions; it's just that the guys ahead of him are getting clear." What he didn't offer -- nor ever will -- is who defines the order in which the QB is instructed to look for a receiver as he reads the passing tree.
--OLT David Diehl missed practice Wednesday but was scheduled to be on the field Thursday. He hasn't missed a game since his rookie year of 2003, when he was the Giants' fifth-round pick via Illinois. "It's just back spasms," he said. "Nothing serious, not a problem."
--The Giants and Steelers, once twice-a-season opponents, have met only seven times since 1991, and the Giants haven't been in Pittsburgh since 1992. The Steelers have won two of the last three meetings, all of which were played in Giants Stadium.
--The last time the Giants played the Steelers was in 2004, and rookie QB Eli Manning was the starter. Only eight other players remain from that game -- OT David Diehl, P Jeff Feagles, C Shaun O'Hara, G Rich Seubert, G Chris Snee and WR Amani Toomer. Two others, WR David Tyree and DE Osi Umenyiora, were there but currently occupy the injured reserve list.
--OT Marvel Smith, who has not played since leaving the fourth quarter in Jacksonville with back spasms Oct. 5, did not practice again on Thursday. Max Starks would replace him.
--RB Willie Parker practiced on Thursday but the Steelers still are not sure if he will play on Sunday. He has not played since his MCL was sprained in the third game of the season.
--SS Troy Polamalu practiced for the second straight day after suffering a concussion on Sunday. He needs to pass a test on Saturday in order to be cleared by doctors.
--LB James Farrior, 33, continues to lead the Steelers in tackles. He has 48 and does not come off the field under any conditions. Farrior wears the defensive radio helmet.
--WR Limas Sweed, who caught his first pass in his rookie season last Sunday, will dress for only the third time this week.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
For the better part of a week, the week leading up to the Giants' trip to Pittsburgh to stage the battle of equally 5-1 teams on Sunday, we have heard about what a great blocker the Steelers have in wide receiver Hines Ward.
"He just loves the contact," says head coach Mike Tomlin, who is defensive oriented and admires such fearless men, especially those who are 5-10 and roughly 200 pounds.
"He's like another tackle out there on the field," says quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "He is a valuable part of our running game, too."
But for Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, Ward is simply someone else who must be handled and attacked. "Yeah, he's a good blocker, but he's an offensive player and he's kinda small and if he was a defensive player laying those hits on offensive guys, he'd be fined and maybe suspended," he said. "Offensive guys are called 'good downfield blockers' but defensive guys wake up the next day and find a FedEx envelope on their stool from the NFL telling them they've been fined."
In any case, the Giants will be thoroughly tested in Heinz Field (and they are the last team to get to play in that new edifice, circa 2001). It can be said that their first six games of the season were, to be kind, played against lesser opponents -- and even then they managed to lose one to Cleveland in a Monday Night Embarrassment.
So now the schedule is no longer going to be kind to the defending Super Bowl champions. After the Steelers, their remaining nine games (without a bye) include two with Dallas, two with Philadelphia, one with Washington, one with Carolina, one with Baltimore and one with Minnesota.
"We don't play that game," Pierce says. "The most important game of our season is our next game and that's all we focus on. When it's over, we look at the next game, and that becomes the most important game of our season."
And part of the secret is to make sure potential spoilers like the outstanding blocker Ward is dealt with, even if, as Pierce noted, "he must be attacked before he can get to your guys."
Ben Roethlisberger vs. Eli Manning presents one of the more intriguing matchups of quarterbacks this year. They are only the third pair from the same draft -- 2004 -- to ever win a Super Bowl.
More than that, they are two of the best quarterbacks in the game today and they must overcome two of the best defenses in the NFL on Sunday in Heinz Field.
They squared off in 2004 as rookies in Giants Stadium and the Steelers won 33-30. The score should not be nearly as high this time. The Steelers rank first in the NFL on defense, the Giants rank fourth. The Steelers, with 25 sacks, average more per pass play than anyone in the NFL. The Giants, with 21, are tied for second.
"It's going to be a rock 'em, sock 'em game," said Steelers tackle Willie Colon. "We understand what it is, they understand what it is."
Roethlisberger admits there's a rivalry between them and also San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, drafted in 2004 as well.
"I don't know those guys that well to call them and talk about who won this many or that many," Roethlisberger said. "There is always that little thing inside you that wants to be the best. I do want to win another Super Bowl before he does."
Roethlisberger has had some minor injuries this season, but has not missed a start. Houston defensive lineman Mario Williams landed on him in the season opener and injured his right shoulder, but that has not bothered him the last few weeks.