Two classic NFL franchises in the hunt for the postseason clash Sunday afternoon from Big D, where the Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Dallas Cowboys.
The Steelers are currently locked in for a wild card spot, while the Cowboys are still alive in the hunt to extend the season past 16 games. Pittsburgh is two games behind Baltimore for the AFC North lead and Dallas is currently tied with Washington at one game back of New York in the NFC East.
Pittsburgh has lost three of four games since a four-game winning streak and suffered an ill-advised 34-24 loss to the inconsistent San Diego Chargers Sunday at Heinz Field. The Steelers were out of it off the jump, trailing 13-3 at halftime and 27-10 after three quarters.
"You have to respond, you have to. We have to have a good week of preparation and respond, show what type of character this team has," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. "It's just frustrating. It's frustrating to see us make flashes, to see us have the makings of a good team and not be able to perform the way you know you're capable of performing."
For how poorly the defense has played in recent weeks, the offense hasn't done much better. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returned from a three- game absence because of a shoulder injury and passed 285 yards with three touchdown passes and one interception. He also rumbled for 31 yards on five carries, becoming the 25th quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least 29,000 yards (29,151) and run for at least 1,000 yards (1,033) during the regular season.
Roethlisberger has thrown for at least 20 touchdowns four times in his career during the regular season and has a TD strike in each of his 10 games played this season. The two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback can set a new career best by throwing at least one touchdown in the first 11 games he has played this season. Big ben has fared well in his career against the NFC, going 24-7 in 31 regular-season games with 6,888 yards, 43 touchdowns, 21 interceptions and a passer rating of 94.6.
The Steelers have won 12 of the last 14 matchups with NFC foes, going 3-0 this season, and are aiming to improve to 4-0 against NFC opponents during the regular season for the first time since 2005. They have a good chance at accomplishing the feat because Roethlisberger, who's 23-10 as a starter in December, is 2-0 with three touchdown passes and no interceptions in his career against Dallas.
Pittsburgh has to get its offense in gear and hasn't scored more than 24 points in each of its last six games. It has the talent to put up 30-plus points with wide receivers Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Heath Miller. Wallace is one reception shy of posting 60 for the third consecutive season, while Miller needs two catches to join Hines Ward (1,000) and John Stallworth (537) as the only Steelers' players with 400.
The Steelers will be without demoted running back Rashard Mendenhall, who was suspended one game for conduct detrimental to the team. Mendenhall has played in four games this year and has 113 yards rushing on 34 carries with no touchdowns. Expect leading rusher Jonathan Dwyer to handle the load against the Cowboys' defense. Dwyer won't have starting guard Willie Colon to run behind after the big lineman underwent surgery on his knee Monday. Tackle Mike Adams is also expected to miss Sunday's game.
"He will be out for several weeks," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Colon. "There is no real update on him other than that. We need to let a day or two go by before we look at the totality of his possible return or not."
Tomlin is 17-6 against the NFC in the regular season.
Dallas kept a pulse in the postseason chase with Sunday's come-from-behind win against the Cincinnati Bengals. It scored 10 points in the fourth quarter and went ahead for good, 20-19, on Dan Bailey's 40-yard field goal as time expired.
Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant suffered a broken finger during the game, but it didn't stop him from catching four passes for 50 yards and a touchdown. He injured the finger the fourth quarter and his loss would be detrimental to Tony Romo and the passing game. Bryant, who visited a hand specialist, leads the team with 75 catches, 1,028 receiving yards and nine touchdowns this season, and he's averaged 7.5 catches and 109.5 yards while scoring six times over the Cowboys' last four contests.
Bryant may undergo surgery to repair the finger and no official word has been made on his status for Sunday.
"The reason for the surgery now is because without it you could have career- lasting stiffness, or life-lasting stiffness," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "People that know hand surgery know if you get in there and fix it you have a chance of playing."
Jones added that the team will get more information over the next day or so. Bryant has caught a touchdown pass in five straight games and owns 33 receptions for 525 yards and seven TDs in his last five.
Of course, the Cowboys are back home for the first time since practice-squad linebacker Jerry Brown was killed in an automobile accident in which teammate and defensive lineman Josh Brent was arrested on intoxication manslaughter charges. Brent attended Brown's memorial service and is free on bail.
"It's a very, very difficult and challenging situation for him," Dallas head coach Jason Garrett said of Brent.
The Cowboys are still alive in the NFC East mix, having won two straight and four of five games, and has a tough road ahead with Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Washington on the upcoming slate. Dallas, which is just 35-40 against teams from the AFC North, had DeMarco Murray back for the second straight game in Sunday's win at the Bengals. Murray had missed six straight weeks with a foot problem before returning in a win versus Philadelphia Dec. 2.
Murray may find it difficult to penetrate Pittsburgh's defense. But if he carries the ball 18 times or more, Dallas has a good shot at winning as evidenced by a 9-0 mark when he totes the football that many times. Murray has amassed 992 rushing yards in those games.
Pittsburgh has won two straight against the Cowboys and took the last meeting, 20-13, on Dec. 7, 2008. Dallas had won the previous four encounters with the Steelers, including Super Bowl XXX. Dallas has faced Pittsburgh in three Super Bowls, going 1-2 in that stretch.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Keep a watchful eye on the Steelers' defense, which hasn't lived up to expectations in recent weeks. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau should have his players prepared for a pass attack this weekend and is hoping to apply heavy pressure on Romo. The Steelers only sacked Philip Rivers once last weekend and he was able to throw for 200 yards and three touchdowns.
Pittsburgh's defense has held teams under 300 yards passing in 36 straight games in the regular season, which is a remarkable statistic. The last time the Steelers allowed a team to record at least 300 net passing yards was Nov. 14, 2010 against the New England Patriots. The Steelers won't have veteran cornerback Ike Taylor in Dallas because of an ankle injury and fellow cornerback Cortez Allen is nursing a hip flexor. Allen has been limited in practice this week. CB Keenan Lewis is also battling a hip ailment.
"Obviously, we are running short at cornerback," Tomlin said. "Those guys that had the opportunity to step up and log a bunch of snaps over the last week and a half, that looks like it is going to continue."
Tomlin was referring to Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian and DeMarcus Van Dyke. It could be a long afternoon if Bryant opts to hold off surgery and going against Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten. Wide receiver Miles Austin is another threat.
Steelers Pro Bowl linebacker LaMarr Woodley can help if he returns this week, but is doubtful with a balky ankle. Woodley has played in 10 games and will be replaced by Jason Worilds again if he can't go. All of Worlids' starts have come in the past 21 regular-season games.
The Cowboys will take on a Steelers defense that is allowing an NFL-low 262.4 yards and 169.2 passing yards per game, but they have one of the more dangerous passing offenses. Witten led the team last week with 62 yards receiving and is Romo's favorite and most reliable option. The Cowboys should take advantage of Pittsburgh's depleted secondary right off the bat.
Dallas should also take advantage of a Steelers team that has 12 takeaways this season and 16 giveaways in the last four weeks.
Choosing to hitch the wagon to Murray could be a bad idea because Pittsburgh is fifth in the league in rushing defense, allowing 93.2 yards per game, and is facing the Cowboys' 31st-ranked ground attack. Sunday's battle between two storied franchises will boil down to how well Roethlisberger and Romo play. Cowboys rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne may miss the game after sustaining lacerations to his face against the Bengals. Dallas added veteran cornerback Michael Coe to the roster as insurance.
The Steelers will continue their playoff push with a big win at Big D on Sunday behind a proficient Roethlisberger. He will get hit a few times, especially by Cowboys All Pro linebacker and sack master DeMarcus Ware. That usually doesn't bother Roethlisberger, who's taken more beatings in his career than most quarterbacks. Of course, a successful ground attack will help take the pressure off of Big Ben even though Pittsburgh's best winning scenario is throwing the football. Romo, meanwhile, has played well the last five weeks or so, but the Cowboys aren't capable of running the table or winning Sunday.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 23, Cowboys 17