Like most Steelers fans, my heart was in my throat Thursday night when Ben Roethlisberger was being helped off the field in obvious agony after having his ankle bent every which way on a play late in the second quarter.
During halftime, I certainly didn't think Roethlisberger would be returning to finish out the game, and I don't know if anyone else has mentioned this on BTSC over the weekend, but I actually had visions of Brett Favre wearing a Steelers jersey. And my imagination even went so far as to wonder if Byron Leftwich would give up his number 4 to Favre. I'm not saying I enjoyed these thoughts, they just popped into my head.
I was as surprised as anyone else to see Roethlisberger warming up right before the second half. If anyone had any doubts about Big Ben's elite status, his second half performance after returning to the game with what turned out to be the dreaded high ankle sprain should have erased them.
The man is simply amazing, and it really doesn't matter where you want to put him in the pecking order, number 7 has been in the group of elite NFL passers for quite some time.
That brings me to my concern for the rest of the season. I've been saying for weeks now that I don't think the wild card entrant would necessarily be a dead end postseason route for the 2011 Steelers. There is an opinion held by many that it's not always the "best" teams that win championships, it's the teams that are the hottest and the healthiest down-the-stretch that normally get to compete for and win the Lombardi Trophy. I agree with that opinion. But while the Steelers are certainly on a pretty hot streak--8-1 in their last nine games--they aren't the healthiest of teams as they head to the finish line.
All year I've been waiting for Pittsburgh to just finally get healthy, but the injury bug that plagued the team early on is still hanging around.
In addition to Roethlisberger, center Maurkice Pouncey also suffered a high ankle sprain against the Browns, defensive end Ziggy Hood injured his groin, and safety Troy Polamalu suffered a hamstring injury.
This isn't the first time that guys like Roethlisberger and Polamalu have had to battle injuries in 2011, and when you factor in the season-long string of ailments that Pittsburgh has been dealing with--Aaron Smith, Willie Colon, Chris Hoke, Hines Ward, Emmanuel Sanders, Daniel Sepulveda, Lamarr Woodley and James Harrison have all suffered injuries of varied degrees--you have to wonder just how the team plans to proceed down the stretch.
We know how the Steelers are going to proceed, of course. At 10-3, they're still very much alive for the AFC North title and a first round bye. They're going to go for that bye, any team would in their position.
Unfortunately, they do not control their own destiny. The Baltimore Ravens own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Pittsburgh due to their series sweep of the Steelers. And with Baltimore also moving to 10-3 after their 24-10 victory over the Colts on Sunday, time is certainly running out on the Black and Gold's hopes for earning the best possible playoff spot.
With the team's division title hopes out of its own hands, and with only three games remaining, should the Steelers throw caution to the wind and try to win out with a bye still a possibility, or should they err on the side of caution and make sure they're as healthy as possible no matter their seeding?
Maybe you'll disagree, but I'm going with the latter.
In addition to having my heart in my throat Thursday night, I also saw the end of any possible Super Bowl hopes flash right before my eyes when Roethlisberger was writhing in agony on the grass of Heinz Field.
Maybe the Steelers can get by without a key starter or two, but when it comes to the franchise quarterback, "The Standard is the Standard" does not apply. Yes, it sounds nice to say, but it's just not reality. Not in today's NFL.
Yes, Charlie Batch is a capable quarterback, and I realize what he did in two-plus games in 2010, but as much as I would try to convince myself otherwise if Roethlsiberger was lost for the rest of the year, the chances of Batch leading the Steelers to a Super Bowl would be slim to none.
That elite group of quarterbacks I mentioned earlier--a group comprised of the Bradys, Mannings, Roethlisbergers and Rodgers of the world--always wind up playing in the Super Bowl. It's no accident.
I know a bye is important, but I don't think it would be the worst thing in the world if we saw Big Ben standing around in street clothes during the Monday night game against the 49ers next week.
After this weekend's action, the Steelers will have no worse than a two-game lead in the wild card standings with just three weeks remaining. At this point, a berth in the playoffs is all but written in stone, and with St. Louis and Cleveland as their last two opponents, the Steelers should wrap up the more attractive 5th seed with no trouble at all.
You might say it's just wishful thinking on my part to suggest that the Steelers could still get to a Super Bowl as "road warriors," but if recent history is any indication, it's more common now than ever.
Unlike the 80's and 90's, when having a bye greatly increased a team's chances of earning a trip to the Super Bowl, in today's NFL, more and more teams are advancing to and winning the Big Game as wild card entrants.
Four of the last six Super Bowl winners came from the wild card round, and five of the last six Super Bowls had at least one wild card team as a participant. Oh yes, and all those teams were led by elite quarterbacks.
So, even though I'm completely on board with the Steelers valiant fight for a first round playoff bye (certainly a big advantage), I don't want to see them do so at the expense of losing their biggest Super Bowl advantage--the franchise quarterback.