Rookies when they first met in 2004, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger have since led their teams to Super Bowl victories. Both appear to have their clubs in good position to make runs at another title this year.
Roethlisberger, the 11th pick in the 2004 draft, got the best of Manning, the top choice that year, on Dec. 18, 2004. The Steelers quarterback recorded his first career 300-yard game, throwing for 316 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in Pittsburgh’s 33-30 win at Giants Stadium.
Manning threw for a then-career-high 182 yards and had his first multi-touchdown game in his fifth NFL start, but New York suffered the seventh straight loss in an eight-game skid.
“I was coming off an awful game at Baltimore and I was going through some struggles,” Manning said. “The Steelers’ defense was one of the best in the league, but we came out and played well. I finally played decent for the first time and managed the game well and made some big plays. At the time it was important for me and my confidence, and the confidence of my teammates.”
Roethlisberger developed faster than Manning and led Pittsburgh to a Super Bowl victory in 2005, helping the Steelers to three straight road wins in the AFC playoffs en route to the championship. Two seasons later, Manning did the same, guiding the Giants to three road playoff wins before they knocked off New England in the Super Bowl.
“There’s always that little thing inside of you that wants to be the best, so I’ve got to get another Super Bowl before he does,” Roethlisberger said.
Now the fourth-year veterans are eyeing another championship as their first-place teams meet. Pittsburgh is atop the AFC North largely because of a smothering defense, as the Steelers’ 89 points allowed is the second-lowest total in the NFL..
Pittsburgh, first in the league in total defense (228.3 yards per game) and pass defense (158.7), is coming off a 38-10 rout of woeful Cincinnati last week. The Steelers held an opponent to less than 100 yards rushing for the fifth time this season, surrendered a season-low 128 passing yards and forced a turnover for the fifth time in six games.
The offense also appears to be coming around with a second consecutive game of at least 375 yards. Mewelde Moore, the third-string running back coming into the season, made his second start of the year in place of an injured Willie Parker and rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught a TD pass from Roethlisberger in the first quarter.
Roethlisberger was 17-of-28 for 216 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“It wasn’t easy,” Roethlisberger said. “Those guys brought a lot of different blitzes. I think they blitzed us every play. That’s the way we should play offense. That’s us when we’re really clicking.”
The Giants weren’t clicking offensively last week, but their defense stepped up in a 29-17 home victory over San Francisco. New York forced three turnovers, had its third six-sack game of the season and held the 49ers to 35 yards rushing.
Manning wasn’t at his best, but rebounded from a three-interception effort in a loss to Cleveland by not throwing any against the 49ers. He went 16-for-31 for 161 yards and a touchdown.
“We’ve played some outstanding games, offensively and defensively. Today our defense played well,” said Manning, whose team is 5-1 for the first time since 1993 and a half-game ahead in the NFC East. “That’s football and you’re going to go through all sorts of situations. It’s all about finding ways to win, to gut it out. That’s what we did.”
The Giants dropped from first to second in total offense but still rank first in rushing at 169.7 yards per game, and their powerful ground game against the Steelers’ second-ranked run defense (69.7 ypg) should be one of the key matchups Sunday. New York’s Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw combined to run for 118 yards last week.
Moore has helped keep the Steelers’ rushing attack formidable in the absence of Parker, as he’s rushed for 219 yards over the past two weeks. Parker unexpectedly did not practice Friday because of ongoing problems with his sprained left knee and is unlikely to play Sunday.
Pittsburgh will face a Giants defense that ranks fifth in the league with 84.5 rushing yards allowed per game. New York is yielding 16.8 points per game - sixth overall.
Pittsburgh has other injury problems, as cornerback Bryant McFadden will miss the next month with a broken right arm. Safety Troy Polamalu suffered the seventh concussion of his career on the same play during which McFadden was hurt, but is expected to play this week.
Two other Steelers starters, fullback Carey Davis and nose tackle Casey Hampton, may also play Sunday. Hampton has missed three games with a groin injury, and Davis has sat out the last two with a bad ankle.
Wide receiver Santonio Holmes was held out of practice Friday and will be deactivated after police stopped his car and smelled burning marijuana Thursday.
Pittsburgh’s win in the teams’ last meeting in 2004 was just the fourth matchup between the clubs since the start of the 1991 season, with the Giants and Steelers splitting those games. New York’s last trip to Pittsburgh came Oct. 14, 1991, a 23-20 Giants victory.