Ready or not, here it comes:*
- Been there, done that with an injured franchise running back in the playoffs. Saw the playoff runs in both 1996 and 2001 die at least partly as a result of the decision to play an injured franchise running back.
- In 1996, the defending AFC Champion Steelers crushed Indianapolis, 42-14, in the Wild Card Round at Three Rivers Stadium, a game in which Jerome Bettis rushed 25 times for 102 yards, scored two touchdowns, and sustained a significant groin injury. Bettis gutted out 13 carries for 43 yards the following weekend, but the Steelers lost to the Patriots, 28-3, in the Foxborough fog.
- In 2001, the 13-3 Steelers entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and Jerome Bettis had been the hub of the offense while rushing for 1,072 yards in 11-plus games that season before injuring a groin on Dec. 9. The Steelers offense continued to roll the next two weeks, with a 26-21 win in Baltimore over the defending Super Bowl champions and then a 47-14 destruction of the Lions at Heinz Field. With the division clinched and home-field advantage a certainty, the decision was made to rest Bettis for the playoffs.
- After the bye, the Steelers' first game in the 2001 playoffs was a rubber match against the Ravens, but the plan to return Bettis to the lineup was sabotaged when his whole leg accidently was numbed during a pregame injection. The Steelers still crushed the Ravens, 27-10, while putting up dominant edges in first downs (21-7), rushing yards (154-22), and time of possession (40:45-19:15). Bettis would play the next weekend, but he was neither healthy nor in sync with what the offense had become, and as a result he was ineffective in a 24-17 loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field.
- Le'Veon Bell's injury and where this Steelers offense is right now in its development creates a completely, completely different situation for this team than was the reality for the 1996 and 2001 Steelers teams. But there is an underlying lesson, and that is this: don't hang the team's hopes on an injured player.
The Steelers prepare for their Wild Card playoff against the Baltimore Ravens.
- Of course the glaring difference between this team and those is that this one has Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback and those didn't. For everything he contributed to the Steelers getting to January with an 11-5 record and a division championship in the hopper, Le'Veon Bell isn't the Steelers best offensive player. Back then, Jerome Bettis WAS the Steelers.
- This leads to one final point about the election of Le'Veon Bell as the Steelers MVP this year. What should be reiterated is that this was the outcome of a vote by the players in the locker room, and what should be accepted is the possibility that those guys' interpretation of M-V-P is different than what the fans/media believe it should be.
- In other words, what Bell did this season was a revelation to his teammates, while there is nothing Roethlisberger can do that would cause even a raised eyebrow.
- Coach Mike Tomlin admitted as much toward the end of his news conference last Tuesday. When asked whether Ben Roethlisberger is at the point where it's expected for him to throw for 300 yards a game, Tomlin answered, "He's been (at that point)." The follow-up question was whether Tomlin takes that for granted. "Yes."
- His teammates probably do, as well.
- Being taken for granted in such a manner is a compliment, really. Whether they would admit it or not, John Fox takes Peyton Manning for granted in that way, as does Bill Belichick with Tom Brady, and Mike McCarthy with Aaron Rodgers. And Manning's teammates, Brady's teammates, and Rodgers' teammates, too.
- For an NFL coach, taking the quarterback for granted is an acknowledgement of his value.
- Of the top-tier quarterbacks in today's NFL, there is little doubt that Ben Roethlisberger is the most underrated. These playoffs, however, are set up perfectly for him to change that dynamic completely, because with Bell injured the perception will be that the Steelers' only chance to win games will be because of Roethlisberger and the passing attack.
- Don't fall asleep on the Steelers defense, though. Just saying. Not that they can plan on winning, 13-9, but it won't necessarily have to be a shoot-out, either, for the team to advance.
- At the early part of this week, Antonio Brown was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week after returning a punt 71 yards for a touchdown in the division-clinching win over the Bengals. That provides a chance to point to the guys who have been the best of the special teams players in coverage. Based on special teams snaps played per game and tackles made, those core guys are Terence Garvin, Vince Williams, and Robert Golden.
- Starting with the 1975 season, which is when the NFL began tying regular season records to the awarding of home-field in the playoffs, the Steelers have played 25 postseason games in Pittsburgh.
- Saturday's will be the 26th, and the Steelers should not pin their hopes on an injured franchise running back. This time around, that's not necessary.
- In Ben they can trust.