Snapshot: Steelers-Titans

WEEK SIXTEEN: Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3) at Tennessee Titans (12-2)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 12/21/08
SURFACE: Grass
TV: CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms)
SERIES: 67th regular-season meeting in a series that began in 1970. Steelers lead the series 38-28. The Titans are 7-1 since moving to Tennessee in 1997. The Steelers last won in Nashville in 2001. Pittsburgh, though, won their last meeting, 34-7 in 2005 in Heinz Field. The Steelers also hold a 3-1 advantage in the postseason, two of them when the then-Houston Oilers lost in consecutive AFC title games in Three Rivers Stadium after the 1978 and 1979 seasons, when the Steelers went on to win their third and fourth Super Bowls.

PREDICTION: Steelers 24-16

KEYS TO THE GAME: Steelers RB Willie Parker has just 196 combined rushing yards in the four games since his last 100-yard outing.

Work on weakness: The no-huddle worked for the Steelers on their 92-yard game-winning drive in Baltimore last Sunday, but they know they need to get the running game untracked heading into the playoffs. With shaky pass protection, QB Ben Roethlisberger has endured big hits throughout the season. The Titans allow just 93.4 rushing yards per game and the Steelers have struggled in short-yardage all season, but Tennessee is without starting defensive linemen Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch. ... QB Kerry Collins is going to have to rebound after struggling with his accuracy last Sunday because the Steelers will dare him to throw. Pittsburgh allows just 75.8 rushing yards per game, so it will be highly difficult for RBs Chris Johnson and LenDale White to win this game without some help from Collins through the air. Tennessee has allowed just eight sacks this season, but Collins will have to be effective underneath and unload the ball quickly against Pittsburgh's pass rush.

Key Injuries: Steelers: DE Brett Keisel (knee) might return after missing three games; LT Marvel Smith (back) will miss his 10th consecutive game. Titans: Haynesworth (knee) and Vanden Bosch (groin) are out.

Need to know: With a win, the Titans clinch home-field advantage in the AFC. Pittsburgh would take the lead with a victory. ... Steelers LB James Harrison has 15 sacks, tied with Mike Merriweather (1984) for the single-season franchise record.

PERSONNEL NEWS

Steelers:
--DE Brett Keisel practiced again on Thursday, with a brace, and looks as if he will play after missing the past three games with a sprained knee.
--QB Ben Roethlisberger has five game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or OT this season. He had six as a rookie and, with 18, averages 3.6 per year, more than John Elway did during his career.
--OLB James Harrison still needs half a sack to set a Steelers record. He had none last week and remains at 15, tied with Mike Merriweather (1984).
--OLB LaMarr Woodley was left off the Pro Bowl even though his 11.5 sacks are third in the conference behind Miami's Joey Porter and OLB James Harrison.
--RB Gary Russell has taken over the kick return duties that had belonged to three others, and his 24.4-yard average on 13 returns is the best on the team.

Titans:
--CB Cortland Finnegan was fined $25,000 by the NFL for two separate hits that drew personal-foul penalties in last Sunday's loss to Houston. Finnegan was flagged for hitting Texans QB Matt Schaub with a helmet-to-helmet hit and later for spearing Texans TE Owen Daniels.
--DE Kyle Vanden Bosch underwent surgery to repair a muscle in the groin area, an injury that has plagued him since early October. Vanden Bosch said he is on the road to recovery and hopes to be ready for the Titans' first playoff game.
--SS Tuff Harris, a special teams player who has been on the scout team, has been impersonating Steelers star Troy Polamalu by not only donning a No. 43 jersey in practice, but also wearing a long black wig out from underneath his helmet to simulate the Steeler safety's long hair.
--CB Cary Williams could miss four-to-six weeks with a quadriceps injury and is a likely candidate for injured reserve.
--DT Amon Gordon is expected to be promoted from the practice squad to the active roster this week in order to provide depth while Albert Haynesworth is out.
--DT Jason Jones will get the start for the Titans in Albert Haynesworth's place. The rookie from Central Michigan has 40 tackles and 1.5 sacks this season.

INSIDE THE CAMPS

Steelers:
Pittsburgh gets the inside track on the AFC's No. 1 seed with a win in Tennessee, but it would earn a virtual two-week bye if it loses to the Titans.

The No. 1 seed, of course, brings a one-week bye in the first round of the playoffs, a home game and, if victorious, the AFC title game at home. The only difference in the No. 2 seed is that team would not play the AFC championship at home unless the top seed loses its first playoff game.

Here's the scenario: If the Steelers beat the Titans Sunday, they also must beat Cleveland at home the next week to claim the top seed, unless the Titans would lose to the Colts in their finale.

That makes their game against the Browns meaningful, the possible difference between possibly playing the AFC title game at home or on the road. However, if they lose to the Titans, their game against the Browns would be meaningless and coach Mike Tomlin could rest some walking wounded who otherwise would play such as Willie Parker and Brett Keisel, and protect some of his stars, such as Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu.

Last year, the Steelers played a meaningless game in Baltimore and Tomlin did rest some starters, but will the prospect of resting some injured and stars for two weeks offset the chance to lock up the No. 1 seed?

"We're just trying to win as many games as we can win," Tomlin said.

Titans:
Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher took a show of hands to see how many of his players had ever played the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A few players raised their hands, most of them recalling a one-sided loss at Heinz Field back in 2005.

Fisher asked again, how many players had ever beaten the Steelers and an even smaller group raised their hands that time.

Time was when the Titans/Oilers considered the Steelers their biggest rival in the league and the benchmark of the old AFC Central. Before realignment, their twice-a-year meetings usually meant hard, driving physical football.

"We've got a show of hands of how many of the guys that have played the Steelers before and then when those hands go up, you ask them how many of them have beat the Steelers and there was a few scattered hands in the building, and that's what gets their attention," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said.

The Titans and Steelers renew acquaintances this Sunday and it could seem like old times as the league's top two scoring defenses square off. The Steelers have allowed just 192 points this season, while the Titans have yielded only 197.

Asked to recall those old battles with Pittsburgh, defensive end Jevon Kearse, who returned to Tennessee this season, remembered it well.

"I just remember we hated them and they hated us," Kearse said. "At one point, I can remember their players taunting our sideline and when we got the chance, we taunted their sideline. It just got really heated."

The rivalry, of course, dates back to the merger and hit its stride in the late '70s with the Steel Curtain Steelers turning back the Luv Ya Blue Oilers in a pair of AFC championships.

More recently with the Titans moving to Tennessee, the rivalry heated up again with a playoff battle in 2002 even after divisions were realigned. Those matchups included Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck knocking Tommy Maddox out of a regular-season game in which he had to be removed on a stretcher. That same game, Tennessee strength-and-conditioning coach Steve Watterson poured hot broth on Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter, who came over to the Titans sideline on an out-of-bounds play.

"I remember all that stuff, knocking Maddox out of the game, Watterson pouring hot chicken broth on Joey. I remember all the games, even when Kordell Stewart was their quarterback," Bulluck recalled. "I guess I have been around this rivalry for a long time. We haven't really matched up in a few years, but this one is a big one. It's for home-field playoff advantage, and overall it's two of the best teams in the league playing against each other."

Later that year, the sides met in the divisional playoffs and a controversial ending in overtime gave Tennessee a 34-31 victory. Titans kicker Joe Nedney had made a 31-yarder in overtime, but it was waved off by a Steelers timeout, even though the fireworks went off after it went through. Then, Nedney missed on the rekick, only to have a penalty move him 5 yards closer, where he made the kick from 26 yards.

It moved the Titans to the AFC championship game and stuck with the Steelers players for sometime after.

"I don't know if he flopped. I know it was good, and they lost and had to go home and we went out to Oakland," Bulluck said.

Titans safety Chris Hope, who was a Steelers rookie then, remembered it somewhat differently, of course.

"All I can remember is being cheated," Hope said, perhaps only half-kidding. "We played a great game and it came down to that field goal, and we know how that turned out."

Sunday's game is the first meaningful meeting between the teams since that playoff matchup six seasons ago. The names have changed, and the Steelers have even changed coaches, but the Titans expect the same old Steelers to arrive Sunday.

"You've just got to be prepared for whatever. I'm sure it will. It definitely means a lot when it comes time for the playoffs. So, it's going to be a real heated game," said Kearse.

Bulluck is looking forward to Sunday, in part because of what is at stake, but also because of the old rivalries that existed in those days.

"It was real intense. I remember the playoff game. I remember before the conferences got realigned, kind of like one of those Jacksonville weeks or Baltimore weeks, they were all pretty much the same," Bulluck said. "They were all physical teams that liked to play defense and liked to run the ball. That always makes for a great football game late in December.

"That's my type of football. Those are the types of games you like to play when you get a chance to play against teams with history, especially the Pittsburgh Steelers."


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