After the Pittsburgh Steelers dropped their fourth straight game to fall below the .500 mark following a Week 10 home loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the question had to be asked; Had veteran quarterback and resident face of the franchise Ben Roethlisberger already played his final series of playoff football?
Since, Roethlisberger and the Steelers have answered that question each and every week with a resounding ”No” during a winning streak that was extended to six games last weekend when they knocked the Baltimore Ravens out of playoff contention with a 31-27, division-clinching victory thanks to a fourth quarter comeback that brought The Steel City to its feet.
Following a crucial win that once again included touchdowns from running back Le’Veon Bell and lead receiver Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger was quick to credit his teammates for refusing to back down against a despised division rival while sharing his post-game thoughts with the media.
”We showed some resolve,” said Roethlisberger. ”That showed some fight, no quit. You never heard anything from the defense [following Roethlisberger’s second interception], you never saw them get down. We can only stick together.”
Moving forward, the Steelers are likely to face a favorable path through the first two rounds of what may be Roethlisberger’s final playoff run. However, this week’s regular season finale against the 1-15 Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field will either offer the key cogs in head coach Mike Tomlin’s balanced machine a chance to get healthy, or, disrupt the winning rhythm that’s recently transformed Pittsburgh into one of the AFC’s most feared post-season opponents.
If the conference’s current playoff landscape remains unchanged through the final game of Week 17, Pittsburgh would host the hobbled Miami Dolphins on Wild Card Weekend. A few weeks ago, a post-season date with the surprising Dolphins wasn’t high on anyone’s Christmas wish list. But starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill is no longer part of the picture after injuring his knee in Week 14, and while lucky-to-be-working backup Matt Moore has quarterbacked his club to consecutive road victories over the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills in Tannehill’s absence, beating a pair of perennial disappointments doesn’t mean he’ll succeed in the playoffs.
A Wild Card win over the Dolphins could also give the Steelers a second-round match-up with the suddenly suspect Oakland Raiders. Much like the Dolphins, the Silver and Black will enter the playoffs without the player that carried them there after starting signal-caller Derek Carr broke his leg during the Christmas Eve contest against the Indianapolis Colts. Minus Carr, the Raiders are forced to roll with backup Matt McGloin, turning one of football’s most formidable passing attacks into a potential weakness.
Other than Roethlisberger and the New England Patriots‘ Tom Brady, the list of likely playoff quarterbacks in the AFC also includes Kansas City Chiefs veteran Alex Smith and former Houston Texans‘ third-stringer Tom Savage, who recently replaced struggling starter Brock Osweiler. That’s a group that can only be classified as unimpressive, and it’s not hard to see how a pair of seasoned playoff warriors like Roethlisberger and Brady could find themselves facing-off for a trip to February’s Super Bowl.
It’s been six years since Roethlisberger last guided the Steelers to the Super Bowl, losing 31-25 to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers at the end of the 2010 campaign. But Father Time hasn’t been kind to Big Ben during the playoffs since his last Super Bowl appearance, and considering that he’s totaled just three touchdowns while throwing three interceptions in his last four post-season starts, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be the quarterback that the Steelers need him to be if they’re going to make another run at a set of championship rings.
Last season, Roethlisberger led his Steelers to a 10-6 finish on the way to securing a Wild Card berth and the AFC’s lowest playoff seed. A two-point win over the rival Cincinnati Bengals in the first round gave folks in The Steel City a reason to believe that their beloved squad was headed for bigger and better things, but ultimately, a second-round clash with Peyton Manning’s top-seeded Denver Broncos halted any hope of another trip to the Super Bowl.
Statistically, Roethlisberger, who’ll be riding the pine on Sunday now that Pittsburgh has named backup Landry Jones as its Week 17 starter, will finish the season just three touchdown passes shy of his career-high of 32 with 29 and a respectable 13 interceptions. And despite posting three-year lows in both completion percentage [64.4] and average completion [7.50 yds], Big Ben is about to lead his team to its third straight playoff appearance at a time when most quarterbacks not named Brady and Manning are planning their retirement.