As the Steelers closed out the 2011 NFL regular season with a 13-9 victory over the hapless and punchless Cleveland Browns, it's time to take a look back at today's game and look at what we've learned about the playoff-bound Steelers.
Here are the lessons we can glean from the Steelers today as they prepare to fly to the high climes of Denver for next weekend's AFC Wild Card Round.
The Steelers were, unfortunately, required to call upon some backups and part-time players in today's game. They performed quite well.
The injury to Rashard Mendenhall was the big one, but Isaac Redman and John Clay proved to be very capable as fill-ins. The Steelers and several fans seem to view Redman as a player who has starter potential.
He proved he could do it on Sunday.
You can analyze the two fumbles to death, but the reality is that the weather was a big factor in every facet of today's game. Redman ran hard with the football and did his best to protect it on each run. He scored the game's only touchdown and proved that he could gain tough yards after contact.
I don't have any qualms about going into the playoffs without Mendenhall. The chief concern there is that the depth is lessened, but there's a good chance that Mewelde Moore will be ready to go next weekend in Denver.
The rest of the injuries were minor, but the Steelers didn't miss a beat.
Ike Taylor was the closest thing to a Pro Bowl snub for Pittsburgh, the product of a glut of good AFC corners and a lack of Pittsburgh turnovers.
It's hard to make the Pro Bowl if you play in the Pittsburgh secondary. The attention is heaped upon Troy Polamalu back there. After him, most of the credit for the team's defensive prowess goes to the front seven, where the team has always been strong.
But one of the better "hidden" statistics was the fact that Cleveland, save for one attempt, never looked for wide receiver Greg Little.
Ike Taylor had him covered. The one attempt that went his way came when Taylor was in Little's pocket.
Is Taylor better than the corners who made the Pro Bowl roster? Probably not. I won't go that far. I will say he is someone who could have been there and should be considered as an alternate. He's been one of the best cover corners in the NFL.
What hurts him? I would say playing with Troy Polamalu (the attention thing) and the fact that Taylor doesn't make splashy plays.
After a week off, Ben Roethlisberger looked ready for the playoffs and recovered from his high ankle sprain against Cleveland a few weeks back.
It wasn't spectacular, but I'll go ahead and say that the wind was a bit rough on Sunday.
What I did see was a quarterback whose mobility was almost back to normal, at least enough for him to side-step the pass rush regularly. I also saw a quarterback who was able to step into most of his throws.
Ben did have a noticeable limp, particularly late in the game when he probably should have been resting. Still, he didn't let the injury have an effect on the game. He was quite good in this game at times.
The Steelers need a healthy Roethlisberger to get far in the playoffs. He won't be at 100 percent probably until after the season is over, but at about 75 percent or better he can win the games. He looks to be there, if not closer to 85 percent, as the team heads into the first round.
One of the best sights? He didn't turn the ball over on Sunday.
The Pittsburgh defense, which got off to a bit of a slow start this year, is now playing its best football and still hasn't even played a fully healthy game since midseason.
If LaMarr Woodley can be healthy, watch out. The Steelers are playing the best defense of anyone right now.
If there is one thing that comforts me as the Steelers head to Denver next weekend, it is that Tim Tebow will be playing his questionable brand of quarterback against the best defense in the NFL. That's not a good recipe for a guy whose best games include 1930s-style passing numbers.
Jason Worilds has emerged as an energetic pass rusher who will likely receive time in the playoffs even if Woodley is back for the majority of each game. He's too fast and too good to leave on the bench and seems to be a good option for third-down pressures, where the team is still working to improve (and where they were excellent on Sunday).
The pass rush has been better and better in recent weeks, something that was missing early on. The turnovers are coming now, too, as the secondary starts to benefit by creating mistakes as quarterbacks run away from the linebackers.
The Steelers defense will have to be good against some of the better offenses in football, which await them if they make a deep run. Right now, they look like a Super Bowl unit.
The Steelers, with or without Rashard Mendenhall (and right now it seems likely that they will be without), are a dynamic running team that can still win games on the ground.
When they needed it most, the Steelers were able to generate big numbers on the ground in the last two weeks.
First it was Rashard Mendenhall slashing up the St. Louis defense. Then it was a combination of Isaac Redman and John Clay tearing up the Cleveland Browns on Sunday afternoon.
They'll need more of the same in the playoffs. Whether or not Ben Roethlisberger is effective or not, the Steelers will not be playing in pass-friendly conditions the rest of the way. The next game where they'd likely play indoors is the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.
The other potential locations for games are New England, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Houston is a possibility, but it will take a superhuman effort for them to get far without their top two quarterbacks and potentially their third now.
The Steelers will play in the freezing heights of Denver this weekend. Running the ball in the winter is important and the Steelers have proven that they can do that.
This team is playoff ready.