Bring on the Patriots

Over the next five games, the 8-3 Steelers would like to accomplish two things: lock down the AFC North championship, and earn the No. 2 playoff seed in the conference. But they'll have to do it the hard way.

Starting Sunday, the Steelers play four playoff-caliber teams, three on the road. They play at New England, home to Dallas and then at Baltimore and Tennessee. The Patriots have been Steelers killers for a decade. Since 1998, New England has beaten Pittsburgh six of seven times, two of those victories in AFC championship games in Pittsburgh. They last met last season in New England, which trounced the Steelers 34-13.

Of course, all but one of those seven games, Tom Brady was quarterback of the Patriots.

"We've got the New England Patriots. They beat us pretty bad up there, but it's good to be 8-3 right now," wide receiver Hines Ward said.

That 8-3 record gives Mike Tomlin the best winning percentage after his first 27 games than any previous Steelers coach, but they started out 9-3 last season before losing four of their final five games, including their first playoff game under Tomlin.

A pile of injuries contributed to that collapse, and they've dogged them much of this season. Starting halfback Willie Parker has been in and out of games with two separate injuries and reinjured his knee (sprained MCL) for the second time this season after it was first hurt in the third game. His availability is unknown this week.

They also lost starting right end Brett Keisel with a sprained knee last Thursday night in their 27-10 victory against Cincinnati. They've played without starting left tackle Marvel Smith for the past six games and without two of their three top cornerbacks, Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden.

Still, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has played well in the past two games, both victories, after a rough stretch in which he threw eight interceptions and only one touchdown pass as the Steelers lost two out of three, both at home.

"I like the way we are playing," Roethlisberger said. "I think we have gone through our kind of midseason struggles and we still have found ways to win. Not just our defense, our defense is great, but also offensively."

The Steelers have the No. 1 defense in the NFL and are No. 1 in many categories. Their defense has been carrying their offense as it struggled through injuries in their line and backfield.

"To be 8-3, we still have a lot of room for improvement," Ward said. "We left a lot of plays out there on the field, but, all in all, it's all about wins and losses. And we're 8-3 right now."

QUOTE TO NOTE

"Early in the year, people were saying, 'Ben isn't smart enough. He isn't taking the underneath stuff. He isn't taking what the defense gives him.' Now, they're saying, 'Why isn't he taking chances."' -- QB Ben Roethlisberger, who has rarely thrown deep the past three games.

TRENDING

Outside linebackers James Harrison (12) and LaMarr Woodley (10.5) are two sacks from breaking the Steelers record for a duo, 24.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--CB Bryant McFadden, who has not played since his forearm was broken Oct. 19, has practiced the past 1 1/2 weeks and could return to start in New England Sunday.
--WR Santonio Holmes left last Thursday's game with a concussion but will play Sunday against New England.
--RB Mewelde Moore might start vs. the Patriots because Willie Parker reinjured his sprained MCL last Thursday night.
--RB Gary Russell, in his second season, has taken over in goal-line and short-yardage situations, something that's been unsettled in Pittsburgh since Jerome Bettis retired after 2005.
--WR Hines Ward needs 282 yards receiving to have his first 1,000-yard season since 2004.


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