By Reid Forgrave
December 25, 2011
Rashard Mendenhall #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers carries the ball against the St. Louis Rams during the game on December 24, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH - On display at Heinz Field on Saturday was something more than a very good football team (the Pittsburgh Steelers) beating a very bad football team (the St. Louis Rams). It was more than a reminder of the wisdom of resting the beat-up soul of your team (quarterback Ben Roethlisberger) when the playoffs are just around the bend — a reminder that might have served Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin well if it had occurred to him a week before.
No, more than that was on display Saturday. The deeper meaning of the Steelers’ grinding 27-0 victory Saturday was that the Steelers showed why they’re the manifestation of all that makes the NFL great: That leading into the final weekend of play, we really have no idea what the Super Bowl will look like come Feb. 5, and this resilient team proved it has as good an opportunity as any.
Even if the Steelers are surrounded by so many questions. Even if the last time we saw their star quarterback, Roethlisberger was hobbling around like an old man Monday during a 20-3 stomping in San Francisco. Even if we don’t know who’ll be under center next week as the Steelers finish the regular season in Cleveland.
“For (backup quarterback Charlie Batch) to go out there and play well, it does two things,” Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said. “It gives the offense confidence we can win with Charlie, but it also gives Ben confidence that he doesn’t have to be out there on one leg for the team. Because that’s what he did in San Francisco. He felt like he needed to be out there for us to win. So hopefully this gives him the confidence that he can heal up for one more week and get ready for the playoff run, because we need him.”
And if Big Ben’s healed up, add these Steelers to the long list of NFL teams that could make a Super Bowl run.
OK, if we’re picking Super Bowl favorites, we’d have to take the defending champion Green Bay Packers. But the Packers’ loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last week reminded us that, in the NFL, even the most guaranteed guarantees aren’t really guaranteed at all.
As my colleague Jason Whitlock detailed earlier this week, going into Week 16 no fewer than 16 teams believed they had a realistic shot at the Super Bowl. That’s half the league, folks. You could never say that about big-market dominated Major League Baseball or the super team-dominated NBA. Only in the parity-dominated NFL can the end of the regular season see so many playoff-contending teams jostling for position.
Leading into Saturday’s games, you wouldn’t have been crazy to have your Super Bowl picks include the playoff-experienced New York Jets or Baltimore Ravens. The suddenly surging Philadelphia Eagles or San Diego Chargers. The comeback-capable Denver Broncos or New York Giants. The always-formidable New Orleans Saints or Atlanta Falcons. Arguing for others? The San Francisco 49ers? The Houston Texans? Heck, the come-from-nowhere Seattle Seahawks? No guffaws here.
And on display Saturday was something remarkable and possible only in the NFL: An injury-addled Steelers team, from a small-market city that hasn’t fielded a winning big-league baseball team since 1992, positioning itself for a fourth Super Bowl run in seven years.
They Steelers are a team of injured superstars (Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley), aging superstars (Heinz Ward, Troy Polamalu) and an utterly unpredictable, overemotional superstar (James Harrison). Yet, right now, especially after the New England Patriots’ squeaker of a win over the Miami Dolphins should make you question their supposed dominance, these Steelers might be a favorite to represent the AFC in Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLVI.
At Saturday’s Battle of the Backups — for the Rams, quarterback Kellen Clemens started in place of injured Sam Bradford — if it wasn’t one Steeler making a play, it was another. It was Batch, performing ably in his fill-in role for Roethlisberger, going 15-for-22 passing for 208 yards, including a 46-yard fourth-quarter bomb to Mike Wallace that put away the game. It was the offensive line, shifting around assignments to make up for injured center Maurkice Pouncey yet still not giving up a sack. It was the Steelers defense shutting out the hapless Rams. It was featured running back Rashard Mendenhall breaking off his second-longest run of the season, a 52-yard dash. And then it was, on the next play, rookie running back John Clay — an undrafted free agent who was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster the day before — scoring on his first NFL carry.
In a nutshell, that’s the NFL: You never know who is next up.
None of those men were the most important person at Saturday’s game, however. That would be the man standing on the sideline in a knit cap. Because if these Steelers are to make another Super Bowl run, Big Ben’s the only man who’ll lead them there, and playing Saturday could have put that in jeopardy. Roethlisberger needs to be mobile and as close to 100 percent as possible for the playoffs.
“This is Ben’s team,” Batch said. “This team moves with him. To see him go in there and do everything in his power to get back on the field is really special to watch.”
Next week against the Cleveland Browns, however, that’s the exact opposite of what Big Ben should do. And, so, next up for the Steelers is a decision: Will Tomlin bring Roethlisberger back for the final game of the regular season?
“A week ago when we played Ben, we were coming off a Thursday night performance to a Monday night performance,” Tomlin said. “We had 11 days. Had we had six or seven days, we probably wouldn’t have played him in San Francisco. Of course the collateral damage coming out of a game like Monday night, with a short week, we made the decision pretty early that we weren’t even going to attempt to work him in.”
Had he decided yet whether to give Big Ben’s ankle another week off? Tomlin was coy.
“We’ll discuss that the first of next week,” he said.
The Steelers are still battling the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North title. Both teams are 11-4 after the Ravens' victory over the Browns on Saturday. The Steelers will want to head into the playoffs with momentum. Yet the Steelers don’t control their own destiny since the Ravens hold the tiebreaker. The correct decision, independent of the Ravens, is for Big Ben to rest up that ankle and head to the playoffs fresh.
But the Ravens are visiting the playoff-hungry Cincinnati Bengals. That’s no guaranteed win. The Steelers could still roll into the playoffs as division champs.
After all, in this league, there is no such thing as a guarantee.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.