If you're an out-of-market Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and you didn't get a chance to see the stomach-turning injury that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered against the Cleveland Browns on Thursday Night Football, well, here's the gruesome footage (video). For the squeamish among you, I'll just say that when Roethlisberger got sandwiched high and low between two Cleveland defenders and writhed in pain, it looked like a broken ankle, for sure.
There are just certain ways we human beings are meant to bend.
And yet the quarterback returned in the second half and finished the game with nearly 300 passing yards, two touchdowns, and a ridiculous 13.3 yards per attempt. A 79-yard, game-sealing catch-and-run (video) by second-year wide receiver Antonio Brown—who's already achieved superstar status—went a long way in padding the quarterback's numbers, but even without the play, Roethlisberger was terrific.
The Steelers led by a mere four points at halftime, due in large part to lost fumbles by Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller in Cleveland territory, as well as numerous penalties. (Pittsburgh had an uncharacteristic 12 penalties for 97 yards on the day; rookie right tackle Marcus Gilbert was perhaps the biggest offender, jumping offsides at least twice on his home field.) Had Pittsburgh been up by two scores, we might have seen Charlie Batch under center the rest of the way.
The fact that Roethlisberger returned to the field tells us that this injury is one he can recover from, and of course that's great news for the Steelers. However, he struggled at times to even the hand the ball off, particularly on stretch plays that require more movement out of the quarterback. But Roethlisberger gets a long week to heal, and a cortisone shot and a good tape job pregame should be enough for him to play through the pain, even if Friday's MRI does reveal a sprained ankle.
It probably doesn't matter anyway, assuming Roethlisberger doesn't aggravate the injury in the remaining three weeks of regular season action. Next week's tilt against the San Francisco 49ers won't be a cakewalk, no, but after that, Pittsburgh gets the pathetic St. Louis Rams, then a rematch with the Browns in Cleveland. Plus, the Steelers have a stranglehold on the top Wild Card spot with 10 wins already. Technically, the Steelers are leading the AFC North at the moment, but that should change on Sunday, when the Baltimore Ravens hand the Indianapolis Colts their thirteenth loss of the season.
If the Steelers lose next week at San Francisco—an entirely plausible scenario—Pittsburgh may have nothing to play for in the final two weeks of the season with the fifth seed locked up and no chance of catching Baltimore. In that case, you could easily see Roethlisberger playing a half against St. Louis and maybe a drive or two against Cleveland in Week 17.
No matter what happens, I can imagine worse things than giving Roethlisberger and other banged up Steelers starters like linebacker LaMarr Woodley the chance to rest their injuries during the season's last couple of weeks, especially since a loss to the 49ers would eliminate the possibility of a first-round bye. After all, the fifth seed in the AFC gets a relatively cushy first-round matchup against the Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, or the Houston Texans, a team that bested the Steelers earlier in the year but is now led by a rookie quarterback.
No matter what happens, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a lock to make the NFL playoffs.