The Pittsburgh Steelers pulled off a surprising win over the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday, improving their record to 7-5, and with it their playoff chances. Teams potentially heading into the postseason have to prioritize differently than those with no chance of hitting the field after Week 17, and how they handle this shift in priorities often determines how well they perform come January.
So let's take a look at what the Steelers need to do to end their season strong and be ready for the postseason, should it happen. Here are the two biggest priorities for the team as they head into Week 14.
Rest is one of them, and that's likely a major reason why so many important names landed on the Steelers' injury report after Wednesday's practice. Cornerback Ike Taylor's injury, of course, isn't about rest—he'll miss a few weeks with his foot fracture, with Cortez Allen taking his starting job during that time.
There's no reason to require a less-than-healthy starter to practice unless he's shown for some reason he needs it. It's Week 14, after all, and there could be two more months of football ahead if all goes as hoped. The key is for current injuries to not get any worse and for those relatively-healthy players to stay that way—the latter being the reason why safety Troy Polamalu did not practice on Wednesday himself.
Someone who did fully participate in Wednesday's practice was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and for good reason. Roethlisberger has missed the last three games with rib and shoulder injuries, and he needed to throw in Wednesday's practice to gauge how far his healing has progressed and whether or not he'd be able to start on Sunday.
It's hard to control everything that happens in a football game, and there's only so much a team can do to prevent injuries once everyone is suited up and on the field. Practices, however, can be curtailed for certain players in the hopes they'll stay healthier longer.
Though much about player health comes down to luck, the more the Steelers can do to make their players' best days their game days, the better off they'll be as they head toward the postseason.
The key now is to not lose that shoulder chip with Roethlisberger back on the field. Clearly, his presence increases the Steelers' chances for victory every week he's out there, but they cannot mistake this very real fact for "now we'll never lose" overconfidence.
Though the Steelers are favored to snag one of the two AFC wild-card playoff berths, there is still work to do before they can claim it. There are four games ahead—two within their division—that will determine whether or not they can return to the playoffs. A misstep in just one of them might make the difference between playing football and sitting at home in January. Making the mistake of underestimating any of their upcoming opponents could be enough to set them up for a loss.
December isn't an easy month in the NFL for any team. Injuries are piling up, the weather is getting worse and the pressure is higher than ever. Preparedness has to extend beyond the physical to the mental. While confidence is necessary, of course, there cannot be too much of it. That leads to complacency, and it keeps teams from doing everything it takes to win games because they believe no team can do enough to beat them.
The Steelers remain a team to beat in the NFL—there are a lot of bragging rights to be had for teams that defeat them—so if the Steelers aren't as prepared for their opponents as their opponents are prepared for them, a reality check may be in order.
Roethlisberger's likely return makes things a lot better—and maybe a little easier—for the Steelers, but he's not the sole reason why they'll win or lose their remaining games. They need to be prepared for anything, not just for inevitable wins.