Pittsburgh Steelers forge forward through injury-riddled season


Pittsburgh Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake knew the word on cornerback Ike Taylor's ankle wasn't going to be great. He'd already been without super-safety Troy Polamalu for most of the season; now he was losing his shutdown corner for what he'd eventually find out was a few weeks, and so a reporter was trying to offer a measure of consolation.

"Well, two years ago the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl after having to put 16 players on injured reserve," the reporter said. "And last year, the Giants --"

A booming voice came down the stairs at the Steelers facility: "Is that supposed to make me sleep better?"

Eventually, Mike Tomlin's legs followed his laugh; the Steelers coach was clearly getting a kick out of the happy-face attempt. Tomlin chuckled some more, referencing his sleep again. OK, no, maybe the previous two Super Bowl winners overcoming massive injuries en route to raising the Lombardi Trophy doesn't salve the pain of Ben Roethlisberger's achy shoulder.

But the Packers' and Giants' method (getting hot late) should. And Roethlisberger's prognosis -- he's throwing better and might play this weekend against the San Diego Chargers -- should, too. Besides the Taylor setback, the Steelers are getting healthy, their final stretch is wholly manageable and the NFL -- thank goodness for it -- is not the BCS.

The NFL introduced playoff seeds in the 1975 season. Since then, 20 No. 1 seeds have won it all. Of those 20, 18 came before the 2000 season. Translation: In the past 12 seasons, just two No. 1 seeds have won the Super Bowl: the 2003 New England Patriots and the 2009 New Orleans Saints.

Maybe teams that lock up berths early get too much rest. Maybe teams that are still fighting for their playoff lives have to play with urgency every week. Maybe they don't have to flip a switch they've turned off for a bit, maybe they're accustomed to playing on the edge, maybe there really is a lot more parity between seeds 1 and 6. The moral is: In all the excitement about the Houston Texans and New England Patriots, don't overlook the guys who are not yet officially in the dance. Like the Steelers.

During a season that started with two former Defensive Player of the Year honorees sidelined, one that's seen Roethlisberger's MVP candidacy interrupted, Tomlin has not allowed an instance of woe-is-me. ("Excuses," he says, "are the tools of the incompetent.") He demands (almost) the same excellence of fill-ins, he spouts lines like, "the standard is the standard," and, in the midst of it all, his team has a deep-seated confidence in itself as a whole unit.

How else to explain going into Baltimore with a third-string quarterback three days shy of his 38th birthday and handing the nine-win Ravens their first home loss in two years? In the muddied AFC, this is still the Steelers. The Steelers of a recharged James Harrison and of the fastest group of wide receivers in the land.

These Steelers have the NFL's top-ranked defense, they have an offensive line that can push people around, they have three different starting running backs and they're one Roethlisberger away from being a legitimately scary team.

The aforementioned 38-year-old Charlie Batch winning in Baltimore on Sunday certainly gave the Steelers some breathing room. It raised the question of whether he bought Roethlisberger some time, perhaps an extra week to rest, with the woeful Chargers coming into Pittsburgh. Not a chance, according to the coach.

"Obviously Ben is our quarterback," Tomlin said. "If he is capable, he's playing."

Tomlin knows the Steelers have to get hot again, as they were on their four-game win streak before Roethlisberger got hurt, and they have to do it now. He knows confidence and momentum matter, even as he frankly said Tuesday, "They're almost mystical because you can't measure them."

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After this weekend, the Steelers have a trip to Dallas and then two more home games, against the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns. That Week 16 matchup could well be akin to a playoff game, with either Cincy or Pittsburgh getting to move on. Polamalu is back. Harrison, after offseason knee surgery, is again playing like the man who puts together a game-turning sack-fumble, and Roethlisberger is throwing.

This hasn't been one of the painless 12-win seasons the Steelers have so frequently put together of late, but that might not be bad, come these next two months. A few weeks back, Maurkice Pouncey refused to call the Steelers' run of injuries a hardship, saying, "There's much tougher adversity in the world," and then wondering if the whole roster being called upon now wouldn't help the Steelers down the line. Or, as Tomlin put it: "I do think our team has some unique characteristics that are kind of borne out of unique circumstances or situations."

Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.

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