Snapshot: Steelers-Cowboys

WEEK FOURTEEN: Dallas Cowboys (8-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
GAMEDATE: 12/07/08
SURFACE: Grass
TV: FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver) SERIES: 27th regular-season meeting. Dallas leads the series 14-12. Pittsburgh won the last meeting 24-20 in 2004. Dallas has won four of the past five games.

PREDICTION: Steelers 23-19

KEYS TO THE GAME: Cowboys QB Tony Romo is coming off consecutive 300-yard, three-touchdown passing games, and expects to play without the splint that has protected his right pinky the past three games. But the Steelers are at home and possess the league's No. 1-rated defense against the run, pass and overall. They allow just 3.88 yards per carry, which would be the lowest figure in the NFL since 1978. Romo's mobility will be key with Pittsburgh also leading the NFL with 42 sacks. And rookie RB Tashard Choice will play a major role if Marion Barber can't play.

Out of the shadows: The Steelers' offense has shown signs of becoming more consistent with RB Willie Parker back to lead the ground game. Mewelde Moore is proving to be a quality complement in the backfield, and the combination is making life easier on QB Ben Roethlisberger. The Cowboys are just behind the Steelers with 40 sacks, but top pass-rusher OLB DeMarcus Ware could be limited by a knee injury. Dallas lacks a lot of other playmakers on defense, so it needs the front seven to take advantage of Roethlisberger's propensity to hold the ball too long.

Key Injuries: Cowboys: Barber (dislocated toe) will be a game-time decision; Ware (knee) guaranteed he will play. Steelers: Roethlisberger tweaked his knee in practice but will play; DE Brett Keisel (knee) and LT Marvel Smith (knee) are out.

Need to know: Ware has broken his own franchise sack record for a linebacker with a career-high 15 sacks. ... The Steelers clinch a playoff spot with a win and losses by Miami and New England.

PERSONNEL NEWS

Cowboys:
--LB DeMarcus Ware has 15 sacks, including seven in his last four games, putting him in reach of Michael Strahan's single-season sack record of 22.5.

"You've got to keep it out of your mind," Ware said. "It's all really just being consistent. That's what I told myself at the beginning of the season, and I've been doing that, and doing really well with that philosophy, so just going to keep on rolling."
--SS Pat Watkins has been fined $12,500 by the league this year for two facemask penalties against the Eagles and Redskins. Watkins was placed on injured reserve this week because of neck strain.
--CB Adam Jones will return punts and kickoffs against the Steelers in his first game back from a six-game suspension.
--RB Alonzo Coleman will likely be signed from the practice squad on Saturday in time for Sunday's game against the Steelers as insurance for injured RB Marion Barber in case he can't play or is limited because of a dislocated pinky toe.

Steelers:
--QB Ben Roethlisberger, who stopped practicing with 20 minutes left in the period on Wednesday when he slipped on mud and slightly hurt his right knee, returned to practice Thursday.
--SS Troy Polamalu missed his second straight practice with a calf injury and his status is unknown. The injury went unnoticed because Polamalu played the entire game in New England and was not mentioned by coach Mike Tomlin as being hurt.
--DE Aaron Smith, who missed Wednesday's practice with a sore knee, practiced Thursday and will start. The defense already is missing starting DE Brett Keisel, out with a knee injury for the third straight game.
--FB Carey Davis is a starter but, like Dan Kreider before him, does not see the football. Davis has only 11 rushes and three receptions this season.
--WR Hines Ward will apparently have to earn his first 1,000-yard season since 2004 the hard way. He needs 245 yards over the next four games to get there.

INSIDE THE CAMPS

Cowboys:
The Cowboys got some good news and bad news regarding two injured starters heading into Sunday's game against the Steelers.

Linebacker DeMarcus Ware practiced with his hyperextended knee on Wednesday. He had no problems and did pretty much everything in the workout, giving coach Wade Phillips hope that he will play.

Ware was a little more definitive, saying there is no way he won't play.

"Full blast," Ware said when asked if he was ready to go. "I won't even be out there if I'm not full blast, because that's the way I play. I play full speed."

Running back Marion Barber is still hobbled by a dislocated pinky toe and did not practice.

It will likely be a game-time decision on Sunday but Phillips acknowledged that he doesn't feel as good about Barber because he has yet to practice.

"We were assuming that Marion would play, but it's a little more doubtful right now," Phillips said.

Steelers:
Playing the Dallas Cowboys at home on Sunday underscores again the difficulty of the Steelers' schedule this season.

If they get through it, they believe it will harden them for the playoffs, and at 9-3 they have a good chance of getting the No. 2 seed.

"One thing about playing all these great teams over the course of the season," receiver Hines Ward said, "it's only going to make us better for the playoffs."

Steelers opponents had a 153-103 (.598) record in 2007, and some have become more difficult, like the 11-1 Tennessee Titans and the 8-4 Baltimore Ravens and, yes, even the once-beaten New York Giants, who became Super Bowl champs last season.

The Steelers are trying to hold off the surprising Ravens in the AFC North -- the two meet in a showdown in Baltimore Dec. 14. If the Steelers win, they will virtually lock up the division; if they lose, it could come down to strength of victory as a tiebreaker.

Coach Mike Tomlin said he does not believe in positioning for the playoffs, but a No. 2 seed looks a whole lot better than the road a wild-card team must take.

The Steelers hope they can look back on their tough schedule and say it helped get them ready for the playoff grind.

"It only helps us if we win," Tomlin said. "That is what we are focused on, trying to win. We understand that if we win and have success under adverse circumstances, that strengthens us for the battles that lie ahead. It is always a good experience if you win, so that is where our focus is."


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