There never is a good time to lose a franchise quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger to a shoulder injury. But the football gods seemed especially cruel to inflict this injury on the Pittsburgh Steelers this week, of all weeks.
The Steelers will host their AFC North rivals, the Baltimore Ravens, on "Sunday Night Football." Two weeks later, the teams will meet in Baltimore. The AFC North will be decided over the next month, and the Steelers might have to roll with backup Byron Leftwich to keep them afloat.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would only say Monday night that Roethlisberger was being evaluated after the game, although a team source later told NFL.com and NFL Network's Albert Breer the intial diagnosis is a sprained shoulder.
While Roethlisberger underwent tests at a local hospital, his Steelers teammates went about the business of narrowly defeating the hapless Kansas City Chiefs 16-13 in overtime. The Steelers need all the wins they can get because this season is about to become a lot more complicated.
We had Roethlisberger listed in the top five of our MVP rankings at midseason because he has been carrying his team all season. Roethlisberger overcame a shoddy offensive line and running game to keep Pittsburgh afloat early. The rest of the team started catching up in recent weeks, but it's hard to imagine Leftwich beating Baltimore. It only takes one hit to shake up a playoff race.
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley's system is brand new to Leftwich, too. He hasn't had the chance to get many practice snaps, and the concept of a "quick pass" offense is somewhat negated by Leftwich's slow delivery.
If Roethlisberger is out for an extended period, the Steelers' running game and defense will have to carry them. But this isn't the same Steelers defense you know despite its lofty ranking. Troy Polamalu remains out with a calf injury. Ryan Clark suffered an apparent concussion Monday night. The pass rush only has been decent.
There are two big reasons for optimism for the Steelers:
1. Roethlisberger still has a long time to recover and possibly return for a playoff push.
2. The AFC is so watered down that the Steelers could afford a slump. Even if the Indianapolis Colts don't collapse down the stretch, what other AFC teams are ready to go on a run and grab a wild-card spot? The Cincinnati Bengals? The Miami Dolphins?
It's hard enough to win division rivalry games where you're at full strength. Playing without Roethlisberger would be a devastating blow for the Steelers. Even a Week 12 game at Cleveland would be far from guaranteed.
Nothing is going to come easily for the 2012 Steelers now.Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.