With the Pittsburgh Steelers scheduled to take on the San Francisco 49ers tonight on Monday Night Football, it's time to take a look at what this game means for the Steelers and what exactly is at stake as they look to push their record to 11-3.
It's an interesting problem to have, but the Steelers really have to decide how they want to approach the rest of the season and the health of some key players.
Maurkice Pouncey is already ruled out with a high ankle sprain. Troy Polamalu has a bad hamstring. Several other guys are banged up in some way.
And then there's Ben Roethlisberger—the team's star and the one guy they absolutely cannot afford to lose.
The Steelers seem ready to play Roethlisberger in tonight's game, but there's a lot at stake. Every hit he takes, no matter how minor, has the potential to aggravate or worsen the high ankle sprain he suffered against the Browns.
If the Steelers feel that they protect Big Ben, they have no issue. If there's any question, they may want to consider at least monitoring how many snaps he takes and also keep Charlie Batch warmed up on the sideline for the first sign of trouble.
Roethlisberger is the NFL's iron man, but this injury has the potential to sit him down for awhile if it gets any worse.
There are two schools of thought here.
The Steelers are in the playoffs. Regardless of what happens tonight, they'll play in the postseason. It might be good to take it easy and rest some key players here and make sure they can be healthy for the playoffs.
But the division is still winnable provided Baltimore stumbles. The Steelers must finish at least one game ahead of the Ravens, who still have to face a feisty Cincinnati squad. If the Steelers win out, there's a chance that Baltimore won't.
My reaction is that you play every game with full effort, and you try to win, but I see the point that if somebody, particularly Roethlisberger, gets injured, the playoffs would likely be very quickly over for the Steelers.
Regardless of the result of Baltimore's Sunday night game, the Steelers must play like every game is a playoff contest right now.
OK, let's assume for a minute that the Steelers can outlast Baltimore. They could still claim a top seed.
I don't envision Denver catching a top-two team unless they fall flat. The Broncos are all but assured to be the fourth seed if they win the AFC West.
That leaves New England. The Steelers hold the tiebreaker against the Patriots if the teams finish tied.
If I'm Pittsburgh, the opportunity to get a bye week if they win the AFC North would be enough for me to get my team up and motivated to win. This is a winnable game even if it is the most difficult remaining on the schedule.
A bye week would fix a lot of what ails the Steelers. They still have to hope for a big Baltimore stumble, but if they do all they can to win, they'll have left it all on the field. That, in the end, is very important when it comes to playoff momentum.
The Steelers just cannot quit now.
Both teams are in the playoffs and now are just fighting to get the best positioning.
But both are heading in different directions at this point.
The 49ers were the surprise darlings of the NFL for most of the season, playing second fiddle only to the Green Bay Packers. Then the stumbling began. They lost a close game on Thanksgiving against Baltimore and then fell apart last week against Arizona.
Instead of being a surefire No. 2 (or even having a shot at No. 1 with Green Bay finally showing some holes), the 49ers are in a fight with New Orleans for the No. 2 seed. Both teams have three losses.
The Saints look like a team on the rise.
The Steelers have only lost three times and only once to a team not named the Ravens. They've been defensively dominant lately despite some injuries, and they have found ways to score on offense despite some very odd choices in play selection and game plan.
The team that wins this game has a good chance to run the table on the way to the playoffs. The team that loses will be in a scuffle.
Pittsburgh needs the momentum more in a much more difficult AFC playoff picture. They have to win this game to keep themselves moving in a positive direction.
Oh, how I wish I could say this was going to be a typical game, but it won't be.
The Steelers pride themselves at being second to none in the way they overcome obstacles to win games. They love being an underdog.
That reputation is going to be at stake tonight.
If they want to keep it, they'll have to overcome a lot of things:
1. Ben Roethlisberger playing on a bum ankle or not playing at all
2. James Harrison being out after his suspension for the hit on Colt McCoy.
3. A long layoff and a cross-country trip
The Steelers can overcome all of these things. They just have to want it.
I've seen a lot of lackadaisical play lately. The Steelers play down to bad teams. The 49ers aren't a bad team, but a lot of people are wondering if they're starting to show their cracks. The Steelers have to bust the cracks wide open.
If they do that, their reputation will be intact. If they don't, we'll have to keep wondering about how well this team is prepared when it comes to prime-time games—an area where they've struggled in 2011.