Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) is hit by Cincinnati Bengals free safety Reggie Nelson (20) in the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, in Pittsburgh. Bell was injured on the play. (AP Photo/Don Wright) (Don Wright)
PITTSBURGH — For all of Heinz Field's aesthetic flaws — some real, most perceived — there really is no place like home.
At least the Steelers better hope that the big yellow monstrosity on Pittsburgh's North Shore provides some sort of distinct advantage to its primary occupants when they host arch-rival Baltimore next Saturday night.
While the Steelers might be AFC North champions, thanks to Sunday night's thrilling 27-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, they might be going forward without their biggest advantage: Le'Veon Bell.
The star running back was injured during the third quarter of Sunday's win over the Bengals with a hyper-extended right knee after taking a low-bridge from Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson. Though Bell was able to jog off the field on his own power, he did not return after rushing for 20 yards and adding another 80 in receiving. The injury cast a pall over Heinz Field even as the Steelers were able to hold off Cincinnati and clinch their first division title in four years.
As for Bell's availability for wild-card weekend — and beyond — that is very much in question. Bell hasn't been ruled out but will be monitored throughout the week.
"No journey is without its adversity," Tomlin said in an understatement.
Sure, the Steelers can curse their bad luck but want to blame someone? Don't look at Nelson. Blame the system, blame the NFL.
"Unfortunately, that's the way the game is being played these days because guys are so afraid of getting fined," said Steelers safety Mike Mitchell. "Guys are lowering their targets. That just sucks.
"I'm a guy, I hit a lot lower now. I don't think it was a dirty play. Obviously, it was extremely unfortunate. You don't want to see Le'Veon getting hit when he 's not looking but that's the NFL we play in today."
Rookie running back Dri Archer, who along with Josh Harris, filled in for Bell, said he didn't get a good look at Nelson's hit but said "It's hard to get a good legal hit."
Mitchell knows all too well how that goes. He says he's been fined over 10 times since coming into the league six years ago. Hit high and you risk league punishment. Hit low and you sometimes get collateral damage like that inflicted on Bell. Oh, and process all that in a split-second's decision.
"People have families," Mitchell said. "You don't want to hit guys in the head and cause long-term brain damage. And also you have families as a defender. You don't want your livelihood, your money, being taken away from you. It's a tough situation for everyone involved, referees included."
With apologies to Harris and Archer, the loss of Bell is a very tough situation for a team that has shown in recent weeks that it can be a legitimate contender to come out of the very tough AFC. It’s a potential game-changer.
Last week there was a clumsy debate as to who the Steeler's most valuable player was. Was it Bell? Was it quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or was it wide receiver Antonio Brown?
Bell won in a vote of his teammates, hard to argue against Bell's 1,361 rushing yards, 994 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. But it's a moot point now.
Now the Steelers might have to find out who really is their most valuable player the hard way. On a short week, to boot.
"I know if there's a chance that he can be out there, he's going to be because that's how he is," said Roethlisberger.
For all the feel-good stories surrounding the Steelers' win, and there are many, the truth is that the Steelers' success is ultimately predicated on their high-powered offense. If the Steelers are to get where they would like, that means a healthy Bell.