Linebacker LaMarr Woodley predicts the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals will "lay down" for their virtually meaningless games Sunday because they don't want the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers to make the playoffs.
The Steelers (8-7) would reach the postseason for the fifth time in the last six seasons if they beat the Miami Dolphins, the Patriots defeat the Houston Texans and the Bengals take down the New York Jets. There are other combinations that would put Pittsburgh in the playoffs, but all include either a New England or Cincinnati victory.
The Steelers' problem: The Patriots (10-5) and Bengals (10-5) have little at stake other than which team will be seeded No. 3 in the AFC. With a wild-card playoff game awaiting both teams next week, New England and Cincinnati are expected to rest some starters to avoid possible injuries.
"All of them lay down," Woodley said Wednesday. "No one wants to see Pittsburgh in it. That's just how it is. Everybody knows we're a dangerous team once we get into the playoffs, no matter how we played the whole year. Once we get into the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers is a playoff team."
The Steelers were seeded sixth in 2005, but they won three consecutive road playoff games and the Super Bowl. One of those road victories was in Cincinnati; now a Bengals loss to the Jets (8-7) could help keep out Pittsburgh.
"Cincinnati is probably going to go into New York and lay down for the Jets and not play them hard just because they're not going to want to see Pittsburgh in it," Woodley said.
Woodley emphasized that the Steelers played their regulars during a season-ending 31-0 victory over the Cleveland Browns last year, despite having nothing to gain other than staying sharp. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sustained a concussion but, after a bye week, returned for the playoffs.
"We definitely wouldn't lay down because it's a pride thing with us, going out there winning ballgames and shutting teams down," Woodley said.
Woodley was a lone voice among the Steelers' players, none of whom said they agreed with their teammate. Safety Ryan Clark laughed off the notion that Cincinnati doesn't want to play Pittsburgh again. The Steelers have lost five of their last seven games.
"To say Cincinnati doesn't want to face us, that would kind of be a little dumb, being that they beat us twice this season," Clark said. "So I'm sure they have a lot of confidence if they do have to play us."
"I think when you say that (teams will lay down), it calls into question the character of the players on their team," Clark said. "And I think all those guys are character football players and competitors. Now if it were last year's (Steelers team), yeah, they probably wouldn't want to play us. But this year's team, I don't think strikes fear in anyone."
"They're a team you can't look past at all," right tackle Willie Colon said. "They're going to have pride and they're going to be ready for us to get after them."
Nose tackle Casey Hampton and running back Willie Parker will understand if New England and Cincinnati rest their starters in what Parker called "a game you don't need."
"Coaches have to do what's best for their team," said Hampton, who laughed when told of Woodley's remarks. "Being healthy going into the playoffs, I think, is their main focus. If the game doesn't mean anything, why risk getting hurt?"
Several Patriots and Bengals players said Wednesday that they want to play this weekend. However, Patriots guard Logan Mankins pointed out that if New England rest its starters and loses, ending the playoff chances of teams such as Pittsburgh, it's the fault of the clubs that put themselves in that spot.
"We put ourselves in this position by winning games throughout the year, and if (other teams) didn't want to have to count on us to win games, they shouldn't have lost," Mankins said. "I think we were in the same position last year, needing another team to lose, and that was no one's fault but our own. Anytime you have to count on other teams to win for you, you're in a bad situation."
"Anytime you go out there as a professional, you want to play to the best of your ability," wide receiver Wes Welker said. "Every given week, this is what we live for. We want to go out there and play every Sunday. We look forward to going out there and playing, whatever the case may be."
"That's how we're approaching this game," Wilfork said. "We're going to go out there, prepare, practice hard, don't keep any bad habits and hopefully put it together on Sunday. Whatever happens after that, happens."
"Think we're going to slow up and lay down?" he asked. "We're going out there with the intent to win the game. There's no other option."
"I will force us to use all three timeouts to get me out of the game, because I'm not getting out," Ochocinco said. "My mindset is already on playing. And I'm not sure why nobody wants to be up front about it, but I'm playing all four quarters, and I'm not coming out of the game."
Lewis is aware of all the criticism that Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian and coach Jim Caldwell received for resting quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receivers Reggie Wayne and other starters last Sunday instead of trying to pursue a perfect season.
"When Jim pulled his guys out of the game, I'm sure he felt like the rest of the group could finish the game and win the football game," Lewis said. "I don't think he intended to lose the football game. Again, I don't know what goes through their minds. I just know our football team is way different than their football team. I know only one way to coach our guys."
Notes: Steelers S Troy Polamalu practiced in a limited role for the first time in seven weeks, although it seems unlikely that he will play Sunday in Miami. Polamalu has missed 10 full games and most of two others because of two left knee injuries. He said it would be difficult to play after just a few days of practice following such a long layoff. ... LB James Farrior (not injury related), DE Brett Keisel (neck), G Chris Kemoeatu (wrist), DE Travis Kirschke (calf) and WR Hines Ward (hamstring) all missed practice Wednesday. LB Rocky Boiman (calf) and RB Willie Parker (shoulder) were limited.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.