Steelers at Cowboys -- Week 15
Where: Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas (Sportfield Softtop, outdoors)
When: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)
Spread: Cowboys by 1½
Forecast: The weather is too nice for December football involving the Steelers. Instead of cold and snow, it'll be partly cloudy and falling through the 60s and 50s through the game. There's a 10-percent chance of rain.
Records: Steelers (7-6, AFC North 2-2); Cowboys (7-6, NFC East 3-2)
Past results: Two most recent regular-season meetings – Dec. 7, 2009: Steelers 20, Dallas 13; Oct. 17, 2004: Steelers 24, Dallas 20. Series record: Cowboys lead the series, 14-13.
What matters: Can the Steelers plug the holes and play better against playoff-pushing Dallas than they did in losing big to the previously 4-8 San Diego Chargers and more akin to their winning effort in Baltimore two weeks ago?
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It will depend on Ben Roethlisberger and the offense taking over the game and outscoring Tony Romo and the ‘Boys. The Steelers defense has survived injuries before, even if it hasn't definitively thrived. But losing standout cornerback Ike Taylor (foot) and backup/nickelback Cortez Allen (groin/hip) hurt, as Philip Rivers and the Bolts proved last week. Now fellow starting cornerback Keenan Lewis (hip), Pro Bowl outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (ankle) and safety Troy Polamalu (calf/Achilles) all are preparing to play despite ouchy injuries that may well limit their snaps and playing time.
Who matters: Roethlisberger, who didn't play well a week ago, particularly early, needsd to play well. But he cannot succeed without better performances from wideouts Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace, who was booed at home in Heinz Field a week ago; running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman (Rashard Mendenhall has been suspended for conduct unbecoming); and, perhaps most important, the line in front of him. Rookie first-round draftee David DeCastro is expected to start at right guard in his NFL debut, and his replacement since DeCastro's preseason surgery, Ramon Foster, figures to move to left guard. That means this would mark the fifth consecutive week with a different offensive-line starting alignment, and the eighth in 14 games. On the defensive side, backups such as outside linebacker Jason Worilds and cornerbacks Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian (out of work two weeks ago) and DeMarcus Van Dyke (benched for special-teams errors by Mike Tomlin previously) plus safety Ryan Mundy will play crucial roles. Expect a special-teamer named Robert Golden to possibly play more in the secondary, too.
Key matchups: Romo vs. whomever plays cornerback for the Steelers will essentially determine the game. If the Dallas passing game cannot be stemmed, the Steelers are in trouble -- especially with so little pass-rush push from its front seven. But if James Harrison and Woodley from the edge can rattle Romo and help to squash the Cowboys' running game, that enhances the Pittsburgh chances. On the flip side, the Steelers' receiving corps vs. their own body parts will be key: Brown vs. his heretofore squishy ankle sprain and Wallace vs. his own hands, per his routine drops. Yet DeCastro, Foster and the Steelers' offensive line vs. the Dallas front seven ultimately will decide if the Steelers can win or not.
Injuries of note: A virus swept through the Steelers locker room this past week, and that could play havoc with their lineup and their ability to perform individually and cohesively Sunday. More than a half-dozen different players were stricken. On the surface, the Steelers deemed out for Dallas are Taylor, guard Willie Colon (knee) and offensive tackle Mike Adams (ankle) along with a suspended Mendenhall. Brown and Harrison among the handful of Steelers listed as probable due to the virus. So, in short, wait until gametime to find out the full health of the Steelers.
Inside stuff: Wallace, who averaged 20 yards per catch as a rookie, averaged barely 30 yards per game over the five contests before his seven-catch, 112-yards performance (and that drop of a potential touchdown) against San Diego last week. Were the hometown boos a turning point? Brown, proven to be the key to the Steelers' passing game, was just getting into shape from a high-ankle sprain when he caught the virus and missed Friday's practice. Don't count much on Plaxico Burress, either – he, too, was sick Friday. Uncertainty surrounds Roethlisberger's targets.
Connections: The Super Bowl history between these two clubs cannot be overlooked. The Steelers, who won two of those three meetings, relish these traditional matchups -- as do their fanatic base of followers, tens of thousands of whom may well line the stadium Sunday. One other connection is geography, with nose tackle Casey Hampton and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders among a handful of Steelers looking forward to family and friends in attendance for their homecomings.
Stats you should know: The Steelers have won the past two meetings, most recently the 2009 game in the old stadium. But they haven't won consecutive games in Dallas since 1962-63. . . The Steelers are attempting to go 4-0 against NFC foes this season for the first time since 2005. . . Pittsburgh had won nine of its past 11 December games before losing to San Diego last week. . . A Pittsburgh victory would mean a ninth consecutive season with eight triumphs or more, a feat only New England has secured.
Looking ahead: The Steelers potential playoff road goes through Pittsburgh, with Cincinnati (essentially a play-in game for a wild-card berth) and Cleveland closing out their schedule – both in Heinz Field. The Cowboys have games with New Orleans and at Washingon remaining.
Prediction: Cowboys 23, Steelers 20.
Follow Steelers reporter Chuck Finder on Twitter @CBSSteelers and @cfinder.