On the flight home from Kansas City last Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers were upset. They had just lost 23-13 to the Chiefs, a particularly galling defeat because K.C. was without both its leading rusher and receiver, and the Steelers had trailed by just a field goal until late in the fourth quarter.
But it was the dose of realism that accompanied their disappointment that frames the rest of the Steelers' season. The game in Kansas City marked what the Steelers hope is the end of the stretch of the season they -- really, all teams -- dread the most: The portion they had to play without their starting quarterback. The Steelers are 4-3 and went 2-2 while Ben Roethlisberger recovered from a knee injury he suffered in Week 3.
If they are annoyed because the two losses came in very winnable games -- when tight end Heath Miller was asked if he would have signed up for 2-2 when Roethlisberger went down, he flatly said "no" -- the Steelers need only look to the Dallas Cowboys, the other team that has played with two different backup quarterbacks, to gauge their relative success at treading water.
According to one person on the team's plane, that was the pervasive feeling -- vocalized even by coach Mike Tomlin in his postgame remarks -- as the Steelers headed home.
"People were upset, but looking at the big picture, it was, 'Our guy is coming back -- now let's go,' " the member of the team said. "Everybody wanted to be 4-0, but it felt like, 'All right, everyone is OK, and Ben has all of his weapons other than Maurkice Pouncey. Now, let's go.' "
A few years ago, Roethlisberger might have handled his injury differently, say those who have observed him throughout his career. He might have disregarded the wishes of coaches and tried to push harder to practice and play before he was ready. That was not his tact in recent weeks, though. Roethlisberger has learned in recent years how to better preserve his body by not taking as many hits and not extending every play in games, offensive coordinator Todd Haley said this summer.
While Roethlisberger wanted to play this time around, he also knew that in the later weeks, backup Landry Jones needed to get all the work in practice. So Roethlisberger spent much of his time in the training room, relaxing and on the sidelines at practice and in meetings helping Jones prepare. He encouraged Alejandro Villanueva, who made his first career start at left tackle, to relax, too. He reminded receiver Martavis Bryant, with whom Roethlisberger is yet to play a down this season because of Bryant's suspension, that he didn't have to try to be the star everybody knows he can be.
This week, though, the attitude will change. Roethlisberger returns in time for Pittsburgh's first game of the season against the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals. A Bengals victory would put the Steelers four games back in the loss column in the AFC North, and while the Browns and Ravens are foundering, that margin would seem to foil any chance Pittsburgh has of repeating as division champion. It would be the biggest lead through Week 8 that any AFC North team has had since the division was created in 2002. The contest is also the start of a three-game homestand that could propel Pittsburgh into the thick of the playoff mix. And most importantly, this is the first time the Steelers' offense -- for which Haley had set a goal of scoring 30 points per game -- will be mostly intact, finally free of injuries and suspensions to the most critical skill-position players.
"We're still alive, our record is 4-3, there's a lot of ball left to be played. We're still in the hunt," Miller said. "All in one piece is relative at this time of year. In a perfect world, we'd still have other guys, but having Ben on the field with Antonio (Brown), Le'Veon (Bell), Martavis -- that's exciting for us."
The vast array of weapons might help ease Roethlisberger's return, which, in seasons past, has not always gone smoothly. The Steelers are 2-4 in Roethlisberger's first games back from previous injuries, and he has thrown eight touchdowns and seven interceptions in those games.
He returns to see a Bengals team that, to listen to Miller's description, sounds a lot like the Steelers, reaping the rewards of continuity among coaches and players to sustain success near the top of the division. And one that has an excellent defensive front that will put considerable pressure on Roethlisberger's legs, even if his mobility is not compromised by the knee injury. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap entered this week tied for the league lead in sacks with 6 1/2, and defensive tackle Geno Atkins has another four, making them the second-most proficient sack duo in the NFL. (New England's combo of Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins is first.)
"If there's a restriction, I shouldn't be out there," Roethlisberger said this week.
At the start of training camp, Roethlisberger addressed the offense, imploring its members not to get caught up in their own numbers, because the unit could be better while individual statistics suffer. The challenge he faces now is distributing the ball to so many targets eager to have it again. The Steelers enjoyed a solid running game in Roethlisberger's absence -- Bell has rushed for 511 yards since he returned from suspension in Week 3, and he leads the league with eight rushes of at least 20 yards.
But the passing game clearly suffered. Brown's production dipped significantly without Roethlisberger. In games with Roethlisberger, he averaged 9.7 receptions and 145.3 yards. Without Big Ben, Brown averaged just 4.3 receptions and 58.8 yards, and he had just 11 receptions in Weeks 4 through 6. Brown admitted this week that Miller, who did not have a catch on Sunday for the first time since 2008, told him in practice to stop complaining about how many passes were coming his way.
Still, the Steelers never scored more than 25 points in Roethlisberger's absence. For the Steelers, then, this is a chance to enjoy the best kind of offensive problem to have: After weeks of limitations because of Mike Vick's style and Jones' inexperience, and missing pieces of the starting lineup, the whole playbook is open to them for the first time this season. And that puts the 30-points-per-game goal in play again.
"I think the capability is still there," Miller said. "It would be easy for us to say we've got everybody back and start overlooking little things. Generally speaking, about midway through the year, teams get their stuff together and start to make a push. We are fortunate to have three at home, but I'm week to week. This is the best team we've faced all season except for the Patriots in Week 1."
Three more things to watch around the NFL in Week 8:
1) When the Packers-Broncos game first appeared on the schedule, it was viewed as a midseason blockbuster that could be a Super Bowl preview. Maybe it will still wind up being those things. But it is also something more immediate: A litmus test for Peyton Manning -- when was the last time he needed one of those? -- to see if he, the Broncos' sputtering offense and its top-ranked defense are a winning combination against the league's best teams. Not to mention Denver's nine offensive touchdowns are the fewest in the league. In their 6-0 start, the Broncos have faced just one team with a winning record (the Vikings) and have not had to contend with a quarterback anywhere near the caliber of Aaron Rodgers. And the Packers' defense has allowed the fewest points in the league, an average of just 16.8 points per game. But the Broncos defense, which leads the league in sacks, is fast enough to contain Rodgers. The first quarter may tell the tale: The Packers have scored a league-high 66 points in the first quarter, while the Broncos have not allowed a single point.
2) Jerry Jones isn't hiding his doubt in his backup QBs. He's not sure Matt Cassel can win any of the games the Cowboys need to stay in the NFC East race until Tony Romo returns in mid-November, and this is probably a bad game if he's seeking reassurance. Seattle's defense might not be what it has been in the last two years, but it allowed just 142 yards total offense to San Francisco last week. The Seahawks have just three interceptions this season, but Cassel was intercepted three times last week by the Giants. He does give the Cowboys more of a vertical attack -- particularly important if Dez Bryantcan return from his foot injury with any amount of his normal explosiveness -- but the Seahawks are allowing just 200 passing yards per game. The Cowboys might try to lean heavily on the running game, which is ranked seventh in the league and which shredded Seattle last season. But despite some struggles, the Seahawks are allowing 94 rushing yards per game and are one of just two teams that has not allowed an individual 100-yard rusher.
3. The Giants lead the NFC East despite scoring one offensive touchdown last week and converting just 29 percent of third down chances in the last two weeks.Eli Manning's play has dipped markedly, and he has completed just one pass that traveled at least 15 yards in the air in the last two weeks -- a potential problem considering the Saints' defensive improvement in the last two games. But the Giants lead the league in turnover differential, and they had four takeaways in each of the last two games. The Saints have won their last two games after opening the season 1-4. While they are not scoring at the same clip as they used to, turnovers will be key. The Saints have just one giveaway in their three victories combined this season, but 10 giveaways in their four losses. The Giants average 2.3 takeaways per game.