With the AFC playoff picture shaping up to be a sprint to the finish line, the final stretch of games is of the utmost importance for everyone who's a contender...including and especially the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Pittsburgh has dealt with a slew of injuries throughout this season, overcoming the loss of guys like Troy Polamalu. But when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down, things got a little more interesting.
Everyone's going to have to do their part in the final six games if the Steelers are going to make a playoff run, but there are a few guys who will need to be at their best.
Let's find out who they are.
We all knew it could get very ugly for the Steelers when it became clear that Ben Roethlisberger was going to miss significant time with shoulder and rib injuries. But it's becoming a disaster, now that it appears backup Byron Leftwich will be out with broken ribs.
Fear not Steeler fans; there is another plan.
Charlie Batch has been with the Steelers since 2003 after beginning his career with the Detroit Lions. Batch has been nothing but successful during his time in Pittsburgh.
Over the 8 seasons Batch has been with the Steelers, he's appeared in 32 games and accumulated 7 starts, of which he's won five. Batch has been efficient with the football, throwing 11 touchdowns to just 8 interceptions in his Steeler career.
Batch has started 3 games for the Steelers over the last two seasons so I'm not too worried about his ability to play. Even better is the fact that he might be a nicer fit into Todd Haley's offense. Unlike Leftwich, Batch can get the ball out of his hand quickly and is a little more accurate.
Keep in mind that Batch is 38 years old and can't carry the load for Pittsburgh. They're going to have to help him out both up front and with the running game, but I do like the Steelers' odds with Batch under center.
This slide might be better suited for all of the Steelers running backs, but I think over the last few weeks, Jonathan Dwyer has proven himself to be the best of the litter.
Dwyer currently leads the Steelers in carries (89), rush yards (410) and yards per carry (4.6). Yet he's been given the starting nod just twice this season.
Dwyer has been injury-prone and doesn't have the stamina to carry the full brunt of the rushing workload, but he should be the lead horse from here on out. The offense has done much better when the ball has been in his hands. With the Steelers down to their third quarterback (who happens to be 38 years old), they'll need all the help they can get from their backs.
Pittsburgh has the luxury of playing some poor run defenses over the next few games and they should take advantage. Teams like Cleveland, Baltimore and San Diego have all struggled in stopping backs. The Steelers need to get their guys going.
Year in and year out, it seems like we're talking about how the Steelers offensive line is going to get their quarterback killed one of these games. Well, they've managed to let two of them go down already and number three is in the crosshairs.
Of the Steelers linemen, no one needs to grow up faster then rookie right tackle Mike Adams.
I'll be the first to admit that I've been hard on Adams. He really struggled when he came into camp and was terrible in the preseason. But he's improved a lot during the course of the season and has found a proper home on the right side of the line.
As a run blocker, he's been outstanding. In fact, behind guard Willie Colon, he's probably the team's best. But pass-blocking has been a different story for the former Buckeye, and he's gotten beat up a lot this year.
Ideally, the Steelers would have liked to give Adams time to develop as a pass-blocker, but that's a luxury they can't afford right now. If he continues to get beat, the Steelers might be looking for a QB off the street.
The Steelers started off the season with maybe their best passing start in the franchise's history. But after the big win over the Giants, the passing game took a big hit and started to fall off.
Coincidentally, that's when Antonio Brown went out with an ankle injury.
Except it's really not a coincidence that over the last two games, against relatively weak defenses, the Steelers are averaging just 177 yards through the air. Brown has pretty much been their best receiver over the last season-and-a-half.
When Brown went out with the injury, he was leading the team in receptions and was Ben Roethlisberger's favorite and most trusted target. Brown makes the kind of explosive plays in the short game and on the outsides that Todd Haley knows how to utilize best.
It's unclear when Brown will return, but he has a relatively good chance to be back this week against Cleveland. He'd be a big help to a guy like Charlie Batch.
The Steelers will need those explosive plays back.
For the second straight year, the Steelers' sack numbers are down. But that one might be easy to explain and it all hinges on number 56.
At this point, there's no question LaMarr Woodley is the team's best pass-rusher. The problem is, he hasn't really been healthy in his last 16 games, heading back to last year. He's finally starting to look strong again.
Woodley was great against the Ravens on Sunday night. And towards the end of the game against Kansas City, he turned on the rush. His biggest problem seems to be that his stamina is still pretty low; he's coming off the field far too often.
The zone-blitz scheme that Dick LeBeau invented only works if the pass-rushers can get to the quarterback. The Steelers haven't done that very well this season. With LaMarr Woodley getting back to full strength, we could see a much-needed turnaround.
Since the upset in Tennessee, cornerback Ike Taylor has returned to form and completely shut down most everything thrown his way. But when Taylor plays like that, it always makes you worry about the other guy.
Pittsburgh has had no reason to worry this year, as Keenan Lewis has been a huge upgrade over William Gay from a year ago. Lewis has embodied this Steelers scheme and is playing it to a T.
But he'll have some tough matchups down the final stretch of the season.
He should be alright this week in Cleveland, but then he'll face off again with Anquan Boldin, who had a solid game in Pittsburgh this week. Following that game, he'll play the likes of Miles Austin, Danario Alexander and one of the slew of Bengals receivers thrown out there.
They may not be huge names, but they've all got talent and have contributed to their teams in big ways this season. If the Steelers defense can keep playing the way they are, they'll be in every game they play. That means Lewis has to keep it up.
In the early part of the season, when the defense was playing poorly, the biggest problem people had was with the seeming lack of leadership the Steelers had on that side of the ball.
Right now, I think they've fixed that problem, and the solution starts with Lawrence Timmons.
Timmons has finally developed into the player the Steelers were hoping they had when they took him in the first round of the 2007 draft. Timmons leads the team in tackles for loss (4) and interceptions (2) while ranking third on the squad with 59 total tackles.
But his biggest impact has come as a leader. When the defense needs a big play, it's usually Timmons who is coming out of the bottom of the pile. The overtime of the Kansas City game proves that point.
Leadership has turned around this defense in the second half, and leadership will carry them to the playoffs. It'll be up to Lawrence Timmons to keep up his play and his voice on the field.
This one might surprise you considering the Steelers are tops in the NFL in pass defense, but they've missed safety Troy Polamalu whether you've realized it or not.
The Steelers may have the No. 1 defense in the league, but they're lacking in some departments that used to be a specialty of theirs. Take turnovers, for instance. The Steelers have been awful at taking the ball away from their opponents, forcing just 9 turnovers all season long.
They've also struggled at getting to the quarterback and making the big, game-changing plays this defense was once know for.
Troy Polamalu was the guy doing all of that.
Ryan Clark has put together an All-Pro season without his counterpart next to him, but he can't do it all. If and when Troy comes back, he's an instant upgrade to a defense that is number one in the league, and that's pretty scary.
With Troy in the lineup, Dick LeBeau can open the pages of the playbook that has been closed for some time now.
The offense is injured and having trouble scoring. With Polamalu back and playing healthy, the Steelers defense can make some of those plays Pittsburgh fans have been waiting for all season long.
Make no mistake about it, they need this guy back.