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 PITTSBURGH (AP) -Brett Keisel woke up Tuesday morning, still sore and tired from the Pittsburgh Steelers' loss to Jacksonville on Sunday. Then it hit him: in two more days, they're playing again.
It wasn't a pleasant thought.
``I was like, 'Oh my gosh, we're leaving tomorrow on the plane,''' Keisel said Tuesday before the Steelers' only full practice of a short week. ``That's the way it is, these Thursday games are a challenge. It tests your mental and physical conditioning.''
Especially that of a team that, a few weeks back, probably didn't expect this Thursday night game against the St. Louis Rams (3-11) to be nearly so important.
That was before the Steelers' once-comfortable two-game lead over Cleveland (9-5) in the AFC North evaporated in only two weeks, although they still own the division tiebreaker. The Steelers also have lost any chance for a first-round playoffs bye.
Merely making the playoffs suddenly has become a struggle for a team that was 7-2 not that long ago. The Steelers' 2-4 road record also is a worry - even though the Rams are 1-6 at home and are coming off a 33-14 loss there to Green Bay.
Rams running back Steven Jackson is a worry to Pittsburgh, which gave up 147 yards Sunday to Jacksonville's Fred Taylor during the Jaguars' 29-22 victory. Rams quarterback Marc Bulger also figures to be motivated going against his hometown Steelers.
``You know they're going to be jacked up to play us, no matter how you look at it,'' Steelers running back Willie Parker said.
Bulger threw for 375 yards and a touchdown in his only previous game against them in 2003, back when the Rams were known as the Greatest Show on Turf.
Also, the Steelers learned a month ago that records don't guarantee anything. After winning three division games in a row, they came out flat against the Jets on Nov. 18 and lost 19-16 in overtime. The Jets have the same record St. Louis does and had won only once previously before beating Pittsburgh.
Still, wide receiver Hines Ward says he cares little about the Rams' record or that of Dec. 30 opponent Baltimore (4-10); to him, the only record that matter is Pittsburgh's.
``For us, if we just win our games, we'll be in the postseason. It's not like we win all our games and we need other people to lose,'' Ward said. ``If we win, we're in. This game is big. All the games now are big.''
That's another reason why this short and not-very-thorough work week is a problem for the Steelers, with such an important game to play with so little preparation.
``It's probably a little bit tougher because it was a physical matchup against Jacksonville and now we're going on the road into a dome - and that's not exactly the best for your body because it does beat you up,'' offensive tackle Max Starks said. ``It's going to be an interesting game because it is such a short week, so hopefully guys can adjust fast.''
The Steelers may be short-handed, too, with left tackle Marvel Smith (back), linebacker Clark Haggans (knee), defensive end Travis Kirschke (ribs) and cornerback Ike Taylor (knee) all hurting. Taylor didn't practice Tuesday, but coach Mike Tomlin expects him to play.
If there is one benefit to the Steelers in playing Thursday, it is that they will have 10 days to rest before that Dec. 30 game in Baltimore. Even if the Steelers are upset by St. Louis, they can make the playoffs by beating the Ravens.
``We've got punched two weeks in a row and, hopefully, we can respond,'' Keisel said. ``This will be a great challenge for us. Short week, and our backs are kind of against the wall. We need to get our 10th win and seal up this thing.''
Notes: Daniel Sepulveda is the first punter chosen as the team's rookie of the year since Harry Newsome in 1985. No other Steelers rookies started this year. The award is chosen by pro football writers. ... G Alan Faneca, one of the team's five Pro Bowl picks, also won the Chief award presented to the player who is most cooperative with the media. The award is named after Steelers founder Art Rooney. ... The Steelers have never played the Rams in St. Louis. The Rams were in Los Angeles when they last played the Steelers at home in 1993, a 27-0 Rams win led by a rookie running back named Jerome Bettis, who was dealt to Pittsburgh three years later.

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