Big Ben's broken nose a symbol of Steelers' power to endure

BALTIMORE -- The face of the Pittsburgh Steelers bled from a nose that had been pushed sideways as he hobbled on a broken right foot.

You won't find a more fitting symbol for a team that has traveled such a rough and treacherous path to 9-3 than the fighter's mug that Ben Roethlisberger sported during Sunday night's how-did-they-do-it victory over the Baltimore Ravens.

How did they do it?

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The Steelers began the year without Roethlisberger for four games while he served a suspension for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy. They've lost starting offensive and defensive linemen to injuries. Roethlisberger suffered a broken foot and limped his way through an overtime win against Buffalo that the Steelers would have lost had a receiver been able to hold onto a touchdown pass. And against the Ravens -- in a throw-back game with fierce hitting from start to finish -- nose tackle Haloti Ngata clubbed Roethlisberger in the face on an early sack and the quarterback kept playing with a displaced nose and a noticeable limp.

"I think it's just the heart of the Pittsburgh Steelers," nose tackle Chris Hoke said. "You're taught as a rookie, a first-year guy, that this is how we play, that's what we expect. And guys always do that, they always pick up the slack. People go down, people step up, and we always fight to the bitter end."

That's what Roethlisberger did. He kept making plays, able to move around well enough while being constantly pounded to lead a 16-play drive that produced a field goal. The defense kept the game tight. And, with the help of some questionable decisions by the Ravens' coaches, the Steelers came away with a 13-10 victory.

"Ben's a warrior," said running back Isaac Redman, who caught a short pass from Roethlisberger and blasted through tackles for the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter. "He's out there, he's bleeding, his foot's broken and he's out there making big plays for us. I can't say enough about him. That's the kind of guy you want leading your offense."

But it's even larger than that. Roethlisberger's ability to extend plays, deliver under pressure and show remarkable toughness is an inspiration to players on both sides of the ball.

"We knew he was playing hampered, so we knew if we could just give him an opportunity to make a play, he was going to do it," safety Ryan Clark said. "He fought the whole game and we finally gave him good enough field position to give him an opportunity."

Said Redman, "When you see your quarterback out there fighting like that, you know if you've got a little sprained ankle or anything, you look at this guy out there playing with a broken foot, you've got to kind of suck it up and go right along with him."

The Steelers' record says they're a serious contender. However, their injuries and the good fortune needed for them to be in this position has to raise questions about just how far they can go.

Pittsburgh's players know those doubts are out there.

"You can (understand why people think that)," Clark said. "But you think about clubs who feel like they're playing great, and we're 9-3 and they aren't. You ask a lot of teams, 'Would you want our record with our problems, with our suspensions, with our injuries?' They'd want to be where we are."

They've got answers

» The New York Giants, because they showed in their victory against Washington that the offense can get physical when, with receivers Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith sidelined by injuries and winds gusting at the New Meadowlands Stadium, they can't rely on big plays through the air. Brandon Jacobs ran for 100 yards for the first time since 2008. Even more impressive is that he did so without injured offensive linemen David Diehl and Shaun O'Hara.

» The Green Bay Packers, because at the perfect time they might very well have found someone who can give them the running game they've lacked for most of the season in sixth-round pick James Starks from the University at Buffalo. Starks, whose draft stock was crushed after he tore the labrum in his shoulder and wiped out his senior season, ran for 73 yards to help the Packers beat San Francisco.

» The Kansas City Chiefs, because they demonstrated in their victory against Denver that they can always return to their foundational strengths -- solid defense and a strong running game -- when Matt Cassel struggles and Dwayne Bowe is held without a catch. That should serve the Chiefs well as they continue their run to their first division championship since 2003.

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They've got questions

» The Indianapolis Colts, because Peyton Manning isn't playing like Peyton Manning, which is why they're losing the battle to mounting injuries and appear to be very much on their way to missing the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Team president Bill Polian was prophetic when he told reporters before the game: "You begin to stretch that rubber band to the point where it's close to the breaking point. That's what injuries do to you. They erode your depth. Sooner or later, you run out of gas."

» The Washington Redskins, because Donovan McNabb isn't the answer at quarterback (and the only thing that would make that contract extension to which the 'Skins signed him seem wise is if it does, in fact, allow them to part ways after the season) and the toxic relationship between coach Mike Shanahan and Albert Haynesworth appears to have actually gotten worse.

» The Tennessee Titans, because they're a shell of the team that began the season at 5-2 and appeared on their way to being a contender. That's what happens when you don't have a healthy and/or legitimate starting quarterback, but whatever happened to Chris Johnson?

Observation points

» The Oakland Raiders gave a figurative backhand to the conventional wisdom that the San Diego Chargers were about to make yet another late-season surge.

The Raiders deserve credit for ending a disastrous, two-game losing streak during which their defense disappeared. They held the Chargers to one touchdown in a 28-13 victory. But the brunt of this outcome is on the Chargers for a sloppy, mistake-filled performance. As a result, they find themselves in a daunting position: Two games behind the Chiefs in the AFC West with four games to play.

Philip Rivers' passing and a dominant defense had made the Chargers look unstoppable. But when you're trying to make that sort of run, there is very little margin for error. The game against Oakland suggests a surprising loss of focus for a team that supposedly understands what it takes to succeed this time of year.

» Interim coaches are supposed to be those easily forgotten asterisks that you find when studying what usually is a difficult stretch in a team's history. Oh, that's right. Fill-in-the-blank-assistant took over for the rest of that season, and the team hired fill-in-the-blank-full-time replacement.

That might very well not apply to the two teams that changed coaches in November.

The Dallas Cowboys continue to look as if they're on the launching pad to something good under former offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, who is 3-1 since replacing Wade Phillips. The Minnesota Vikings are 2-0 since their former defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier, took over for Brad Childress.

By now, it might be safe to assume that the Cowboys, perhaps because of the makeup of their roster, were the wrong team for Phillips' laid-back style. He gave his players plenty of space to be themselves with the expectation that they would perform well when it counted. This group apparently needed a much stronger rudder, which Garrett has so far done a nice job of supplying. I've heard the argument that Jerry Jones might be inclined to pursue a "bigger name" to coach the team next season because he needs to enhance the club's attractiveness to those buying all that is for sale at his palace of a stadium. I'm thinking that scenario is less likely now that Jones has something else to sell: Success ... and the promise of more of it.

Given how disconnected Childress had become with his team, you get the feeling that Frazier had the squad at "hello" after his promotion. In the two games since their debacle against Green Bay, the Vikings have looked inspired, especially on defense.

Frazier also handled a potential quarterback controversy well by making it clear that if Brett Favre is healthy, he'll get the start against the Giants in Week 14. That does not mean Frazier is making the same mistake that Childress made by letting Favre run the team. It means that he has all sorts of leeway. Favre, who left the Buffalo game early with a shoulder injury, didn't look as if he would be ready to play any time soon, and putting his banged-up, 41-year-old body on the field against the Giants' pass rush would seem to be a bad idea. Tarvaris Jackson, who had an up-and-down performance in Favre's place, has the mobility to avoid pressure, and Frazier could make a very logical case for him to stick as the starter.

» It becomes increasingly apparent that Jay Cutler is rounding into the poised, dependable quarterback that the Chicago Bears need if they're to be successful in their quest to win the NFC North.

Defense has been the story of the Bears' season, and rightfully so. Chicago's defensive effort is its best since 2006. Some argue it might even be better. But the Bears' 24-20 win against the Detroit Lions was the kind of tight game where efficient quarterbacking was particularly vital, and Cutler came through by completing 21 of 26 passes for 234 yards and a touchdown while throwing no interceptions.

» The New Orleans Saints are 9-3 and very much in contention in the NFC South, but there is still something about them that doesn't provide the same feeling that last year's Super Bowl team did.

Maybe it was those early-season doldrums that prompted discussion that they were still suffering from the effects of a hangover. Maybe it was that lopsided loss at Cleveland. Maybe it was a near-loss at Dallas on Thanksgiving. Or maybe it was a game like Sunday's 34-30 triumph over Cincinnati that came down to an inexcusable Bengals blunder.

Offenses line up on fourth down all the time for the sole purpose of trying to draw the opponent offside. Most of the time, it doesn't work because the opponent -- every bit of aware of the strategy as the rest of the stadium and everyone watching or listening to the game -- doesn't move. But with the Saints lining up on fourth-and-2 from the Cincinnati 7, Pat Sims jumped, New Orleans had a first down, and Drew Brees threw for the winning score on the next play.

Part of me wants to say that the Saints' wobbly performance is reason to doubt their ability to be anything more than a one-and-done wild-card entry. And part of me wants to say that maybe "wobbly" is the new "dominant" in the NFL.

MJD motors forward

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» Most of us seem to want to find reasons not to believe in the Jacksonville Jaguars, but they keep making it harder to do so.

Face it, fellow skeptics: The Jaguars have a good chance of winning the AFC South. After disposing of the Titans, they find themselves very much with the inside track to finally yank the division crown from the Colts' grasp. A home victory against Oakland in Week 14 is very possible, as is a triumph over those shaky Colts at Indianapolis a week later.

Why should anyone believe in the Jaguars? The most obvious reason is Maurice Jones-Drew, who has had five consecutive 100-yard rushing games. Another reason is how well the Jaguars control the ball, which, of course, has plenty to do with Jones-Drew's running. The Jaguars have an NFL-low nine three-and-outs. They had none against Tennessee.

» Why do we continue to have players, such as Lions receiver Nate Burleson, who feel it's necessary to guarantee a victory as he did before his team faced the Bears? Do they really think that will inspire anyone except the opposition (and even that's a stretch)? Are there any refunds with those guarantees?

Four intriguing games for Week 14

New England at Chicago: Dare we utter the words "Super Bowl preview" for this one? It seems like somewhat of a long-shot, although the respective records and exceptional performances on opposite sides of the ball (Patriots passing game, Bears defense) make it at least a semi-legitimate conversation. New England's defense could have some serious problems with a Chicago offense that is more balanced than the one against which coach Bill Belichick had success for his first head-coaching Super Bowl win when Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz coached St. Louis. It will be interesting to see what sort of pressure the Bears are able to generate against the Patriots' quick-throwing scheme.

Oakland at Jacksonville: The Raiders can keep their postseason hopes alive, but it's hard to gauge their worthiness as a contender considering how horribly they played before that convincing win over San Diego. As a first-place team, the Jaguars must be taken seriously. That's hard for many observers to do, because of their reputation for mediocrity and the fact they're occupying a perch that has long been the property of the Colts. The offensive game plans aren't likely to produce anything remotely close to fireworks. The Jaguars' offense is Jones-Drew's running. The Raiders love to pound the ball, too, and work play-action off of that.

Kansas City at San Diego: Who would have ever believed that this game would give the Chiefs the chance to essentially seal a division championship? That's the reality of one of the best turnaround jobs in the NFL. The Chiefs are here because they have the right man in charge in general manager Scott Pioli and the right coach in Todd Haley, who has been able to do a much better job of focusing on the big picture because of the trust in his coordinators, Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel. The major difference between these teams is that the Chiefs have multiple strengths while the Chargers can't succeed unless Rivers ALWAYS plays at an elite level.

Philadelphia at Dallas: The fact the Cowboys have won three of their last four games and have played well in every game since Garrett became their coach makes this game far more interesting than it would have been otherwise. The Eagles, and especially Michael Vick, have had plenty of time to rest and recover after their Thursday night game in Week 13. Vick will again look to thrive in a prime-time stage and continue to make his case in a wide-open competition for league MVP with Peyton Manning and Rivers losing some ground. Has Andy Reid succeeded in getting the attention of officials to keep a closer eye on the fact that Vick is taking more hits than other quarterbacks because of his running style? We'll see. We'll also see about the Eagles' defense, which looked way too vulnerable against Houston.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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