Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3) at New England Patriots (12-0) 4:15 p.m., Channel 4. Line: Patriots by 10 1/2
When the Patriots run
The Patriots' uneven running game will face its toughest test of the season. The Steelers rank No. 1 in total defense and No. 2 against the run, allowing just 76.8 yards per game on the ground. The Patriots are eighth in the league in rushing at 121.3 yards per game, but neither Laurence Maroney nor Kevin Faulk can expect to have much success against the physical Steelers. Center Dan Koppen will have to handle nose tackle Casey Hampton if the Patriots are going to do anything on the ground, and there are questions as to whether he can do it without help. That means guards Logan Mankins and Stephen Neal will have to be at their best as well. The Steelers' front seven is fast enough to contain outside if the Patriots try that route. Linebackers Clark Haggans, James Farrior, Larry Foote, and James Harrison are all quick and very physical. The Steelers will miss safety Troy Polamalu (doubtful with a sprained knee), who is a big hitter and strong in run support. Look for the Patriots to utilize Maroney and Faulk in the passing game. Maroney was impressive in that facet last week, catching two passes for 79 yards. The Steelers will try to keep seven or sometimes just six in the box to boost pass coverage. If the Patriots have some success running the ball - or catching it out of the backfield - they'll be tough to stop.
When the Steelers pass
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 25 touchdown passes, trailing only Tom Brady and the Cowboys' Tony Romo, but the Steelers' passing attack has been hit or miss. They are averaging only 193.7 yards a game in the air, 24th in the league. They like to spread it out, and have had success when they do, but that has left Roethlisberger vulnerable, resulting in 35 sacks. The Steelers expect to get some reinforcements Sunday, with tackle Marvel Smith (back) and receiver Santonio Holmes (ankle) due to return after missing two games. Holmes - he leads the team with 7 TDs and 17 yards per catch - has become Roethlisberger's favorite deep threat, a nice complement to veteran Hines Ward. Look for Roethlisberger to attack No. 2 cornerback Ellis Hobbs with both receivers, especially Ward. Still, the Patriots have had their usual success disguising coverages this season, and their 17 interceptions are third in the league. The Patriots don't have a lot of speed in the defensive backfield and try to show different looks to generate pressure. With Rosevelt Colvin out for the season, Adalius Thomas has been moved back to outside linebacker, where he's more comfortable. The Steelers will have to account for linebacker Mike Vrabel, who was quiet against the Ravens but leads the team with 9 1/2 sacks. The Steelers need to get production out of tight end Heath Miller (37 catches, 6 TDs), who will be a handful for the Patriots' older, slower linebackers.
When the Patriots pass
The Eagles and Ravens had some success slowing the Patriots' top-ranked passing attack the last two weeks, and did it mostly by jamming Randy Moss, Donté Stallworth, and Wes Welker at the line. If any defense is capable of duplicating that, it is the Steelers. Cornerback Ike Taylor (6 feet 1 inch, 191 pounds) has the size and strength to challenge Moss. And the Steelers have proven they can shut down strong passing teams; they put the clamps on the Bengals last week, keeping receivers Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Chris Henry out of the end zone, although they did it on a sloppy track at Heinz Field. The Patriots will try to get the Steelers out of their base 3-4 defense by going with four-receiver sets on early downs. The Patriots have been dangerous operating out of the spread, and if the Steelers respond by keeping mammoth nose tackle Casey Hampton off the field, it could give the Patriots some running room. Veteran safety Troy Polamalu is a force but has been slowed by a knee injury and is unlikely to play. Second-year safety Anthony Smith - who has guaranteed a victory Sunday - is a hard hitter but will be put to the test by Tom Brady. But the Steelers will pose problems for the Patriots with their zone-blitz schemes. Brady has made defensive backs left in single coverage pay, but the Steelers' zone may give the pass rush time to get to the quarterback. Tackles Matt Light and Nick Kaczur have been immense all season in protecting Brady - 16 sacks in 430 pass attempts - and they will have to continue that Sunday.
When the Steelers run
The Steelers have long been a run-first team, and this club, led by Willie Parker, is no different. But despite their No. 3 ranking running the ball, they haven't always been productive on the ground. Parker has struggled near the goal line - he has only two TDs - and fumbled four times last week against the Bengals, losing two. Najeh Davenport, the short-yardage specialist, is expected to play Sunday after missing last week with a foot injury, but the Steelers will be running Parker a lot. He's a big-time runner (1,093 yards) with the speed to go outside and the strength to run between the tackles. And he's going against a Patriots defense that is ranked sixth against the run but has benefited from the offense building big early leads. The Ravens' Willis McGahee gashed the Patriots for 138 yards last Monday and was unstoppable for three quarters. The Colts, Cowboys, and even the woeful Dolphins had success running against the Patriots, so look for Parker to be called on often. The Steelers will look to guards Alan Feneca and Kendall Simmons to set the tone in the running game. The Patriots' linebackers looked slow last week against a mediocre Ravens offense, and will be tested even more by the better-balanced and explosive Steelers.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Steelers 21