The Steelers open play with an eight-game winning streak from last year.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- They were the NFL's hottest team at the end of last season, with numerous reasons to think they will be better still in 2006. Their quarterback's exceptional off-season injury recovery makes them all the more optimistic this could be a championship season.
The Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, right? Wrong. Try the Miami Dolphins.
The Steelers and Dolphins meet tonight in the NFL's opening game, but one that originally wasn't planned to match these opponents. A rematch of the Steelers-Broncos AFC championship game was anticipated, but the Broncos pressured to get out of the game and the Dolphins took their place.
Which raises this question: Is playing in the NFL's showcase opener a reward or an unjust penalty for the Dolphins, who missed the playoffs despite ending the regular season with a league-best six consecutive victories?
Heinz Field usually is one of the NFL's toughest stadiums for a road team, though the Steelers lost there three times last season, and this will be the first game they will play there that counts since winning their fifth Super Bowl.
On long winning streak
The Steelers are on an eight-game winning streak after going 4-0 to end the season -- and all four were must-win games -- and 4-0 in the playoffs.
"There are a lot of positives to it," Dolphins coach Nick Saban said. "We just look at it as the hand we're dealt and we'll do the best job we can to manage it."
Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown prefers to view it as an opportunity rather than a penalty. Miami hasn't won seven games in a row since 1985.
"We get to go out and be the first people to play the defending champs," he said. "It's just an opportunity to us to go prove ourselves as a team."
And, too, for the Steelers to show they can overcome their first big obstacle as they try to achieve what their 1975 and 1979 teams did by following a Super Bowl title with another one.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appeared to have made an exceptional comeback from his scary and near-tragic motorcycle accident in June, only to need an emergency appendectomy Sunday that will keep him out of at least this game.
Observed practice Tuesday
Roethlisberger was back observing practice Tuesday night, but can only watch Thursday as one-time Lions starter Charlie Batch tries to win his third game in a row as a backup.
"The craziest things happen all the time," Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said. "You never know when they're going to happen, you've just got to go out there and play. It's Charlie's turn to go out there and lead the team."
Or, as wide receiver Hines Ward said, "We've got to stay afloat."
Roethlisberger's absence eliminates one of the expected story lines, the match-up of recovering quarterbacks. Daunte Culpepper takes over the Miami offense after missing his final nine games with Minnesota last season because of three torn knee ligaments.
Made fast recovery
Culpepper was told he might miss this season, too, only to come back much faster than anticipated. He led the NFL with 4,717 yards passing during his last full season in 2004, the fifth-highest total in league history.
"I'm extremely excited," he said. "To get hurt and go through all of that was tough. Right now, I just have a huge smile because of where I come from and where I see us going."
Batch, not as strong a downfield thrower as Roethlisberger but a capable scrambler and passer, was 2-0 as a starter last season while seeing his first meaningful playing time since 2001.
A Dolphins pass rush led by Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas will pressure Batch frequently to try to force mistakes -- and perhaps force the Steelers to beat them with their running game.
"But they were going to do that even if Ben played," said Batch.
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