Pittsburgh (11-4) at Cleveland (4-11)
By BRETT HUSTON,
The Pittsburgh Steelers had no problems getting by without Ben Roethlisberger in their latest game, but the franchise quarterback says he plans to play in the team’s potentially significant regular-season finale in Cleveland.
The progress of a game on the opposite end of Ohio may determine how much.
A first-round bye is in sight for the Steelers with a victory over the Browns on Sunday and some help, but otherwise they’d likely need to win three times on the road to make a return trip to the Super Bowl.
After suffering a high ankle sprain in a 14-3 win over Cleveland in Week 14, Roethlisberger played through pain in a 20-3 loss at San Francisco 11 days later, throwing three interceptions as Pittsburgh blew a chance to stay in the driver’s seat for the AFC’s top seed.
Needing two wins and a Baltimore loss to win the AFC North and guarantee at least a first-round bye, the Steelers (11-4) rested Roethlisberger in favor of Charlie Batch last weekend against St. Louis. Batch threw for 208 yards while Pittsburgh rode a 116-yard rushing performance from Rashard Mendenhall and a dominant defensive effort to a 27-0 win.
Baltimore held off a late rally by the Browns to win 20-14 that same day, but the division’s current leader - by virtue of a head-to-head sweep of the Steelers - hardly has it easy in Week 17. The Ravens travel to Cincinnati, where a win would put the Bengals in the playoffs as the AFC’s No. 6 seed and third qualifier from the North.
A Baltimore loss and Pittsburgh win would give the Steelers the No. 2 seed, and potentially No. 1 should New England falter. But anything else leaves Pittsburgh as the AFC’s fifth seed with no week off, almost certainly requiring the defending conference champions to win three road games to reach a fourth Super Bowl in seven years.
It was unclear early in the week if the Steelers would risk Roethlisberger for what amounts to a 50-50 shot at best at a bye, but Thursday the recently named Pro Bowl passer said he’d give it a go.
“As long as I can deal with pain, I’ll be out there,” Roethlisberger said. “I don’t want to let the guys down, so I’ll do what I can to be out there.”
Coach Mike Tomlin’s offensive coordinator agrees - to a point.
“I want him out there but not at the risk of injuring himself,” Bruce Arians said. “If he can’t move around and get out of the way, there’s no sense in getting him out there.”
While the Steelers need help from the Bengals - offensive lineman Trai Essex said he “might peek a couple of times” at the scoreboard - they’re focused on the Browns (4-11), especially considering they didn’t put the Dec. 8 meeting away until a 79-yard Roethlisberger-to-Antonio Brown touchdown with 2:52 left.
“Cleveland’s going to do whatever they can to put a damper on our season as much as possible,” Essex told the Steelers’ official website. “They’re not having the year I’m sure they wanted to, but whenever we play against each other it doesn’t matter what our record is, we’re going to get their best and they’re going to get ours.”
Roethlisberger isn’t the only quarterback to have sustained a potentially significant injury in the first meeting. Browns quarterback Colt McCoy took a helmet-to-helmet shot from Steelers linebacker James Harrison late in the fourth quarter, a hit that drew Harrison a one-game suspension and opened the door to Cleveland’s coaching staff receiving plenty of criticism.
McCoy returned to the game, but was later diagnosed with a concussion. The decision to send him back in led to the NFL instituting a policy that requires teams to have a certified athletic trainer in the press box help medical staffs evaluate injured players.
One of the harshest critics of the Browns’ handling of the situation was none other than Harrison, who said last week that Cleveland should be disciplined since he was docked one game.
As for his play, Harrison claims he’s lowered his target area. Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson isn’t so sure.
“Harrison is who he is and whether you fine him, you suspend him, he’s not going to change,” Jackson said.
McCoy, who missed the past two games, has not been medically cleared and is unlikely to return for the finale. Seneca Wallace figures to get the call again after throwing for 373 yards, two TDs and an interception in losses to the Cardinals and Ravens.
“We have to try to take advantage of every opportunity and make sure we do it at 100 percent,” Wallace said. “Do it at a high level and minimize mistakes. Against teams in this division, we can’t give them easy ones.”
As long as Roethlisberger’s been in Pittsburgh, matchups with Cleveland have typically been just that. The Steelers are 13-1 against the Browns with Roethlisberger starting, and he’s thrown seven touchdown passes without a pick in his last four visits to Cleveland.
“You never want to lose to Cleveland,” Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. “When you are in this city, when you play for this organization, that’s a game you don’t want to lose.”