AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers wish they were still playing, but the playoff exit gives several key players the chance to heal.

Six Steelers will have offseason arthroscopic surgeries, according to coach Mike Tomlin, including five starters.

The list and the length of recovery: safety Mike Mitchell (left shoulder, four-month recovery), punter Jordan Berry (right shoulder, four months), linebacker Ryan Shazier (knee, a few weeks), tight end Matt Spaeth (knee, a few weeks), guard David DeCastro (ankle, a few weeks), offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle, a few weeks).

Mike MitchellAP Photo/Don WrightSafety Mike Mitchell will be out four months after surgery to repair his left shoulder.

Arthroscopic surgeries are not considered major for a player’s long-term health.

More serious injuries to center Maurkice Pouncey (fibula) running back Le'Veon Bell (torn MCL) and left tackle Kelvin Beachum (torn ACL) have progressed according to plan, Tomlin said. All three players missed the season with those injuries.

Running back DeAngelo Williams does not need surgery on the foot injury that sidelined him for two playoff games.

“The necessary time to restore their bodies, that’s an element to this,” Tomlin said about a successful offseason.

The Steelers won 10 regular-season games and advanced to the AFC divisional round despite injuries to several key players.

Tomlin recognizes the fight in his team, but he’s still “disappointed” in the team’s season, for one reason.

“When we said to be world champion is our goal, we meant it,” Tomlin said.

Tomlin is conducting player exit interviews and evaluating his roster and coaching staff, which he says he wants back in its entirety.

PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger doesn't scramble as much as he used to, but that's in part because the scrambling isn't necessary. The Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback lets his arm strength guide each play. He made a few throws in this year's practices that looked like they came straight from the pitching mound. That 50-yard attempt he threw to Markus Wheaton to open the Denver game Sunday was five yards over Wheaton's head, the sign of an amped quarterback with a huge arm.

So it's no surprise how Roethlisberger answered when asked during his weekly appearance on 93.7 The Fan Pittsburgh about his offseason goals.

Ben RoethlisbergerChristopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsBen Roethlisberger said he's going to work on his arm strength as he recovers from a separated shoulder he suffered during the playoffs.

Roethlisberger feels he's playing his best football, and he wants to preserve it.

"For me, I want to keep my arm strong," Roethlisberger said. "I felt like it’s been, last year and this year, the strongest it’s been. I’m going to keep working on arm strength and quick release. That’s key to being successful at the quarterback position."

The arm strength has aided Roethlisberger's accuracy. His completion percentages of 67.1 and 68.0 the past two seasons were the best of his career. Part of that is offensive coordinator Todd Haley's system being friendly to Roethlisberger's skill set, but Roethlisberger certainly deserves credit for those numbers.

Roethlisberger's exact methods for arm strengthening are uncertain. Throwers can improve their arm with refined mechanics, upper-body-specific stretching, core workouts and Jobe exercises for shoulder strength, among many options. Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the 2014 offseason that he planned to work rigorously with a personal trainer.

As the Steelers navigate the process of turning a very good team to a great one, keeping the heater fresh is crucial, especially as Roethlisberger turns 34 in March and played through a separated shoulder during the playoffs.

What will help Roethlisberger is improved protection. Roethlisberger mentioned this on 93.7, citing the impact of offensive line coach Mike Munchak. Roethlisberger's ratio of 1.66 sacks per game in 2015 was the best of his career.

"I feel like I’m playing my best football," Roethlisberger said. "That’s a big credit to the guys around me."

Roosevelt NixCharlie Riedel/AP PhotoThe Steelers re-signed fullback Roosevelt Nix, who made three starts in 2015.

PITTSBURGH -- Roosevelt Nix is quite the story. He went from undrafted linebacker out of Kent State in 2014 to a starting fullback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, fresh off a one-year contract extension.

That extension came Tuesday, as the team announced the signings of Nix and reserve offensive guard Chris Hubbard, who has played in eight games from 2014-15 after spending the previous season on the practice squad.

Nix played in 15 games in 2015, making three starts and recording eight tackles on special teams. The Steelers still value the fullback position when many teams have gone without one.

The team also signed 10 players to reserve/futures contracts: safety Jordan Dangerfield, offensive tackle Matt Feiler, center/guard B.J. Finney, defensive back Isaiah Frey, tight end Xavier Grimble, defensive end Caushaud Lyons, running back Rajion Neal, wide receiver Shakim Phillips, running back Abou Toure and safety Ray Vinopal, the only player of the bunch who wasn't on the Steelers' practice squad in 2015.

The Steelers didn't wait long after the heartbreaking playoff loss to Denver to get busy with transactions.

James Harrison, Ronnie HillmanHelen Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesJames Harrison was disruptive in a platoon role at outside linebacker for the Steelers this season.


PITTSBURGH -- After watching James Harrison in Sunday's loss to the Broncos, it's hard to think that he couldn't help the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016.

Harrison was disruptive. He sacked Peyton Manning, which rarely happens. He had three tackles for a loss and seven tackles and was in the Broncos' backfield more than any other Steeler.

The 38-year-old Harrison would provide a spark for the defense in a part-time role, but Harrison's future job prospects are more complicated than simply assessing his on-field ability.

The Steelers and Harrison each must answer one important question before next season.

For the Steelers, it's this: Will Harrison's presence stunt the growth of first-round pass rushers Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones?

For Harrison, it's this: Does he want to go through the grind again? Harrison admitted to reporters Monday that if he knew that, "I wouldn't be sitting here trying to figure out what I'm going to do." At the center of Harrison's evaluation seems to be his willingness to maintain his maniacal training regimen in the offseason.

"In season, that's the easy part," Harrison said.

Harrison finished the season with 40 tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception. Those are solid numbers. In fact, that was the best regular-season stat line among the four rotation pass rushers.

It goes beyond numbers with Harrison, though. The Steelers must decide whether Dupree and Jones -- who were disruptive in two playoff games -- should play every down, or at least most of the game. The Steelers still have Arthur Moats as a versatile option. Perhaps they want to roll with the four-man crew, which would make Harrison's return a no-brainer, while possibly weaving in sixth-round pick Anthony Chickillo.

Harrison looms large in the locker room and on the field as an embodiment of the hard-edged 2000s Steelers teams. Would that presence affect Jones and Dupree as they try to develop their NFL personalities through trial and error? It doesn't have to -- in fact, both players say Harrison has been helpful to their careers -- but that could be an inadvertent effect because Harrison can still produce. These are the things general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin will likely discuss. Tomlin generally favors the leadership of trusted veterans, so he could be in Harrison's corner here.

Harrison didn't learn anything new about his game. He played his role well and had fun doing it, he said. He told his younger teammates to "remember the feeling" of a playoff loss.

"It's not a guarantee you'll get back to that point," Harrison said.

Harrison isn't sure if he's willing to find out firsthand.

"I’m not ready to make a decision," Harrison said. "When that time comes, you guys will hear about it, I guess."

Let everyone know when you're ready, James.

CINCINNATI -- The throwdown at Paul Brown Stadium was the type of game that either galvanizes a team or buries it.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are about to find out which category they fall into.

After 60 minutes of haymakers, a $100 million shoulder to the turf, concussion protocols, helmets to the head, back-of-the-leg touchdown catches, Steelers assistant coaches barking at Bengals and insane momentum shifts, the Steelers left Cincinnati bruised and battered before Sunday's AFC divisional round game against Denver. Pittsburgh's two best players, Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder) and Antonio Brown (concussion), are now questionable.

Bontaze Burfict, Antonio BrownAaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsAntonio Brown (84) suffered a concussion after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from Cincinnati's Vontaze Burfict (55).

At least the Steelers had a heckuva time -- when they weren't freaked out.

"That's probably the funnest, scariest game I've been in," said linebacker Ryan Shazier, who prolonged the Steelers' season with a strip of Jeremy Hill late in Pittsburgh's 18-16 AFC wild-card win.

You know it was a wild game when Vontaze Burfict running through the tunnel and all the way to his locker room after a fourth-quarter interception is about the eighth-most newsworthy item of the night. The game was bonkers.

The Steelers have found ways to win games such as this. They can take the pounding. They can take the hits. They can roll with the wild swings of a game. The defense, despite playing brilliantly for three quarters, looked uncomfortable defending the pass late, and the Bengals marched downfield twice. Even so, the Steelers got the ball back to the offense when the game appeared over.

"We didn't break," linebacker Jarvis Jones said.

What they can't do, however, is survive a playoff run without Roethlisberger, who gave no indication after the game of the severity of his injury. Guard David DeCastro said the injury looked "pretty bad," which made him wonder if Roethlisberger had a sprained AC joint, similar to Tony Romo's recent injury. If Big Ben's injury is anything close to Romo's, his chances to perform are not good.

"I'm going to give everything I can, like I always do," Roethlisberger said of playing in Denver.

This year's Steelers average 22.4 points per game when Roethlisberger doesn't start, compared to 28.3 points when he does. Entering Saturday, Roethlisberger had thrown 454 of the Steelers' past 458 pass attempts in the playoffs.

Landry Jones instilled little confidence with his 2-of-5, 11-yard relief performance that included an interception to Burfict. Perhaps a full week of prep would help him, but the Steelers would be two-score underdogs without Roethlisberger -- and especially so without Brown.

Unlike the Bengals, the Broncos won't gift wrap 30 yards of penalties in the game's final seconds. After Cincinnati made up a 15-0 deficit, there was no reason the Bengals shouldn't win. But the Steelers will take the victory, especially considering Roethlisberger finished the game while unable to throw the ball more than 10 yards.

"You can never lose hope," safety Mike Mitchell said.

This whole season has been a prize fight for Pittsburgh, which is constantly dealing with physical play and injuries. The Steelers seem to thrive off the resilience required to shake those issues and win games.

That process is getting increasingly difficult.

Antonio BrownGregory Shamus/Getty Images The Steelers got the best of the Broncos in their Dec. 20 meeting, which gives Pittsburgh confidence going into Sunday's rematch.


CINCINNATI -- Here are three reasons the Pittsburgh Steelers can beat the Denver Broncos on Sunday in the AFC divisional round playoff game at Mile High Stadium (4:40 p.m. ET, CBS).

Mental edge on Denver: The Broncos looked helpless in the second half of a 34-27 loss last month in Pittsburgh. After jumping to a quick double-digit lead, the Steelers roared back in the second half. The Broncos had no answer for Antonio Brown, who completely took over the game and humbled the usually excellent Chris Harris Jr. The Steelers like the way they match up with Denver. Martavis Bryant can occupy the bigger Aqib Talib, and with Denver depleted at safety, that leaves room for Brown to operate. Assuming the offensive line holds up against a very good Broncos pass rush, the Steelers can get yards on Denver downfield -- and they know it.

Tebow exorcism: On a crisp January evening in Denver about four years ago, Tim Tebow reached back with that baseball delivery and launched the best slant route of his life to Demaryius Thomas: 80 yards, game over, playoff loss for Pittsburgh. Think the Steelers might be eager to get back to Mile High? That game haunted Pittsburgh for a while. The throw showed the age of Pittsburgh’s defense, and the Steelers posted back-to-back eight-win seasons after that trip. This defense is better now and will want to show it on the road.

Hitting Peyton Manning: The Steelers were third in the league with 48 sacks. Memories of Kansas City applying pressure on Manning in the pocket two months ago, which resulted in one of the worst performances of his career, are still fresh. Manning might be back to normal, but there’s hardly a guarantee his body -- or his arm -- will hold up. Manning, of course, is one of the best ever at deciphering what a defense is doing at the line of scrimmage, but the Steelers should be able to get into Manning’s backfield against Denver’s relatively young offensive line.

Ben RoethlisbergerAP Photo/Fred VuichWith Ben Roethlisberger at the helm, the Steelers always have a chance.

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are far from content with simply squeezing into the AFC wild-card round.

"We’re trying to go out here and win it and win for each other," linebacker Lawrence Timmons said.

Getting to the top will be a serious climb. If the top two seeds hold serve, the Steelers must win road games at Cincinnati, Denver and New England.

Good luck.

Here are three reasons, in numbers form, the Steelers believe they can do it.

328.1: The Steelers' average passing yards per game when Ben Roethlisberger starts. On a ho-hum, average day, Roethlisberger is throwing for 300-plus. He completed 11 games, and he's thrown for fewer than 300 yards in only two of them. Turnovers have been an issue, as he's thrown six interceptions in his past three starts. The red zone offense will stall on occasion. But the passing totals are significant because Roethlisberger consistently gives the Steelers chances -- chances for field goals, for touchdowns, to control the game. Those chances travel, too.

48: Number of sacks by the Steelers, the third-highest total in the league and the Steelers' highest total since 2010. The Steelers are an imperfect defense that gives up nearly 300 passing yards, but it's sort of designed that way. Safety Will Allen admitted this defense is built on sacks, run defense and turnovers. When the Steelers flourish in those areas, they are tough to beat. When they struggle in those areas, it gets ugly on the back end. But sacks have been the constant. What's interesting is that they don't have a true sack master. Arthur Moats' sack at Cleveland this past Sunday was the first from a Steelers outside linebacker in four weeks. Defensive end Cameron Heyward leads the team with seven sacks. But the Steelers also have eight different players with at least 3.5 quarterback takedowns. If the Steelers get no pressure, they'll have no chance Sunday. But usually they do.

3: Number of road losses for Pittsburgh against high-caliber teams -- a seven-point loss to New England, a nine-point loss to Seattle and a 10-point loss to Kansas City (without Roethlisberger, who was injured). This doesn't seem like a positive, right? But the Steelers feel they learned from those experiences, which translated well in their best road performance of the season, a 33-20 win at Cincinnati on Dec. 13. Not many teams are more battle-tested than Pittsburgh, which played a difficult schedule stocked with playoff teams and did so without several key players because of injuries. "Guys just stepped up and did everything they could to not miss a beat," Roethlisberger said about his lineup. Resilience and flexibility, the Steelers hope, will prevail in January.

Fitzgerald ToussaintAP Photo/Ron SchwaneFitz Toussaint had to scratch and claw his way to the NFL, but he now might find himself playing meaningful snaps in a playoff game.

In less than two years, Fitz Toussaint went from undrafted free agent looking for a tryout to potential starting running back in a playoff game for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Starter DeAngelo Williams is dealing with an ankle injury that doesn’t appear serious but could hinder him this week in practice leading up to Saturday’s AFC wild-card game with Cincinnati at 8:15 p.m.

Here are five things to know about Toussaint, 25.

1) He overcame a gruesome injury at Michigan: The Iowa-Michigan game on Nov. 17, 2013, was not a good day for Toussaint, who broke his left tibia and fibula in the first quarter. Toussaint told ESPN’s Michael Rothstein in early 2014, "I kind of looked down and went into shock. I looked at it, and it was an ugly look. All out of whack."

2) He fought his way into the NFL: Toussaint had a private workout with the Patriots before the 2014 draft but went undrafted. He wasn’t signed as a free agent. He worked out for Miami and Baltimore. No immediate job prospects.

In early summer, the Ravens finally called offering a training camp spot. After 103 yards in the preseason finale against New Orleans, Toussaint secured a spot on the team, spending time on the practice squad and the active roster. He rushed for 12 yards on six carries.

The Ravens cut him before the 2015 season. The Steelers quickly offered Toussaint a practice squad spot. He spent most of the first two months on the practice squad before moving to the 53-man roster, where he is now.

Vince Calo, Toussaint’s agent, classifies Toussaint as a “tough Youngstown [Ohio] kid” who had to “fight, scratch and claw his way into the league.”

3) Toussaint took the No. 2 tailback job away from Jordan Todman: Todman, a five-year NFL veteran with five career touchdowns, had the inside track to back up Williams. Instead, he fell to third string, but not based on his own performance, rather because of Toussaint's performance.

“It’s about the confidence we’re gaining in what Fitz is capable of doing,” said coach Mike Tomlin when discussing the move after the Colts game in Week 13.

4) Teammates have noticed Toussaint’s ability, waiting to see the flashes in games: Wide receiver Markus Wheaton, who said that Toussaint has been “looking good in practice,” thinks “everybody is high on him.”

So far, those flashes haven’t translated to yards. Toussaint has 42 yards on 18 carries, or 2.3 yards per carry.

But teammates are confident he can get more yards once he finds a rhythm with the Steelers' offense and blocking schemes.

5) Playing for the Steelers means supporting his daughter: For fringe 53-man roster guys, one week on the active roster is a huge deal -- because they are fulfilling an NFL dream but also because the game checks are heftier than practice squad money.

During his time with the Ravens, the Baltimore Sun reported that Toussaint was grateful for his games on the 2014 roster (four in regular season, plus playoffs) because of his daughter, Martia, 9.

“I don't see her that often, so this being my motivation -- to support her -- me getting added to the roster, and it being [near] her birthday was kind of surprising,” Toussaint told the Sun in August.

Calo said he has noticed Toussaint is a proud dad who doesn't travel much because he's "all about family and football."

A look at the Pittsburgh Steelers who were "up" and those who were "down" in the 2015 season.

UP

Antonio Brown: He was the team's MVP for this ridiculous stat line -- 136 catches, 1,834 yards, 10 receiving touchdowns. It was one of the best single-season receiver performances of all time. And to think he put up these numbers without Ben Roethlisberger for four games.

DeAngelo Williams: He had one of the best seasons of his 10-year career. Williams led all Steelers playmakers with 11 offensive touchdowns and would have been well over 1,300 yards rushing had he been the starter all year. He was excellent in pass protection, too.

Ben Roethlisberger: The 16 interceptions are the only blemishes on his 2015 performance. Most of the time, Roethlisberger was brilliant. You could argue he's never been better.

Cam Heyward: His seven sacks weren't flashy, but he played better than that. At times, Heyward took over games defensively. His production tapered off late in the year.

Marcus Gilbert: It was a breakout year for Gilbert, who didn't give up a sack until Week 14.

William Gay/Mike Mitchell/Will Allen: Mike Tomlin stuck with his veterans in the defensive backfield, and though it wasn't always pretty, they were timely playmakers that steadied the waters for an otherwise young group.

DOWN

Antwon Blake: He wasn't as bad as fans made him out to be, but he struggled in coverage for parts of the year. He made it on the "down" list multiple times. Blake just didn't have the breakout year he was expecting. He's a good tackler but struggles in one-on-one settings.

Ryan Shazier: Health contributed to this. He had trouble staying on the field in the season's first 10 games. He flashed playmaking ability but never really established a rhythm.

Jarvis Jones: Five sacks in three years is a hard sell for a first-round pick. The Steelers like his versatility and his ability against the run, but pass rushing was supposed to be his specialty. Jones is part of a four-man outside linebacker rotation, and he was the only one of the four with fewer than four sacks.video

Karlos WilliamsBrett Carlsen/Getty ImagesKarlos Williams contributed a 2-yard touchdown in Buffalo's 22-17 victory against the Jets. New York's loss means Pittsburgh, and Vince Williams, is in the playoffs.

CLEVELAND -- After the Pittsburgh Steelers clinched a playoff spot with a win against the Cleveland Browns, at least one Steeler was worried about how to pay back a special Buffalo Bills player.

Linebacker Vince Williams is the older brother of Bills running back Karlos Williams, who contributed a 2-yard touchdown rush to seal the victory against the New York Jets. The Steelers needed a Jets loss to land the final AFC wild-card spot.

Vince had promised Karlos a Super Bowl ticket for a Bills win, and Vince did his part with a tackle for a loss. Vince said he'll "absolutely" buy his brother a ticket to a playoff game or the Super Bowl, whichever he prefers.

"I'm flying him," Vince said in the locker room. "Hotel fare -- all that."

Williams said during the week he doesn't his brother many extravagant gifts because Karlos, a fifth-round rookie, is the higher draft choice. Vince went in the sixth round of the 2013 draft.

But Vince was willing to make an exception this time.

"I was like, 'Man, look, we're trying to go to the Super Bowl, bro," Vince told the Beaver County Times during the week. "I told him I'd get him a ticket. I told him, 'You could go to the Super Bowl. It's not like ya'll are going to be going."

CLEVELAND -- The last Pittsburgh Steelers-Cincinnati Bengals matchup ended with nearly $140,000 in player fines for on-field fighting and verbal spats on social media later that night.

These two can break the 1-1 season tie in the playoffs this weekend in Cincinnati. Denver's 27-20 win over San Diego secured this delicious 3-vs-6 AFC Wild Card matchup.

"If we get them, I'll be very excited," right tackle Marcus Gilbert said after the Steelers' 28-12 win in Cleveland.

Gilbert was vocal in response to Adam Jones after that 33-20 Steelers win on Dec. 13, saying "All I want for Christmas is the Bengals" and the playoffs are where the Bengals "choke." The rivalry had reached a boiling point with a pregame scuffle between both teams, which was fueled by the physicality during the Bengals' 16-10 win in November. Vontaze Burfict appeared to celebrate Le'Veon Bell's MCL tear during that game, prompting Steelers linebacker Vince Williams to threaten Burfict on social media afterward.

Two months later, as both teams have secured a playoff spot, Gilbert said he won't back down. He would have been excited to play anyone but he'd "love to" play Cincinnati.

"Obviously I wouldn't stand down by it -- I'm going to embrace that challenge," Gilbert said. "I was looking forward to it all along. If we get them, I'll be very excited."

Winning twice in Cincinnati in the same year will be difficult. But Andy Dalton's extended absence, with AJ McCarron starting the last three weeks, has to be a positive for Pittsburgh.

The Steelers defense picked off McCarron twice in the last matchup. They'll have to do it again, unless the offense takes over.

"We've got the best offense in football," Gilbert said ."I think we're going to ride this wave."

CLEVELAND -- The Pittsburgh Steelers closed out the regular season with a 28-12 victory against the Cleveland Browns. They now move on to the playoffs.

Reasons to be excited: Dan-ger-ous. The Steelers are still the team no one wants to face in a playoff setting. Even when the offense struggles, it can turn it on at any time -- deep balls, sideline work, over-the-middle catches. Antonio Brown has never been better. The defense has been uneven at times, but overall it has improved over last year. And it will be better equipped to handle playoff moments than it was a year ago, relying on its ability to stop the run and rush the passer. Defenders must tackle more consistently. Still, the Steelers did not give up more than 20 points in each of their last two games. They believe they are better than any team they would face in the first round, especially if it is the Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers are great when the offense doesn’t turn the ball over. Ben Roethlisberger's 16 interceptions in 12 games are hard to ignore, but when they play a clean game, the Steelers can move the ball on anybody most of the time.

Ben RoethlisbergerScott R. Galvin/USA TODAY SportsBen Roethlisberger and the Steelers are one of the AFC's most dangerous playoff teams.

Reasons to be concerned: The Steelers’ depth is an issue in a few spots. They are running on fumes at running back after DeAngelo Williams injured his right ankle in the second quarter against Cleveland. Fitzgerald Toussaint is unproven, to put it nicely. The Steelers like him as a developmental player, but who knows if he’s ready for this? He entered the Cleveland game with 18 yards on six carries, and he got 12 yards on his first five carries Sunday. Williams could be back soon, which would be ideal because he does so much in the offense as a lead rusher and an above-average pass protector. But ankle injuries are tricky. Also, the Steelers have minimal help if an offensive lineman goes down. They were not convincing in their final two games of the regular season. Are they done peaking? There was no reason the Steelers shouldn’t have had a bigger lead than 17-12 early in the fourth quarter against the three-win Browns.

How far they can go: The Steelers already defeated two of the AFC’s top seeds, and they hung tight with the New England Patriots on the road in Week 1 despite missing offensive weapons Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant to suspension. This team can get to the AFC Championship Game, where a healthy Patriots offense would not be a good matchup for Pittsburgh’s secondary. If Williams returns, this team can snag at least one playoff win and possibly contend for the Super Bowl. But if he doesn't, that might not be possible if the team lacks a semblance of a running game. The Steelers have a 6-2 record in the second half and momentum. Save for Tom Brady, the AFC playoff quarterbacks don’t exactly induce fear in the eyes of defenders. The Steelers would like their chances against Alex Smith or Brock Osweiler or AJ McCarron.

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' passing game heated up late in the first half, and the Steelers lead the Browns 14-9.

That must continue, considering the circumstances.

Fitz Toussaint is the tailback. DeAngelo Williams was sent to the locker room with an ankle injury. The offense has one Ben Roethlisberger interception, one Antonio Brown fumble and one Chris Boswell missed field goal.

And, oh yeah, the Jets were losing to Buffalo in the first half.

Ben RoethlisbergerAP Photo/Ron SchwaneSteelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had 227 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, but he also had an interception.


The stage is set for vintage Steelers heroics on the way to the playoffs, but Cleveland has come to play, and the Steelers are letting a bad team hang around in a divisional road game.

It's time to play a little warmer than this 30-degree northeast Ohio day. Surely the Steelers do understand the gravity of the moment. They said so all week.

The onus is on Roethlisberger and the passing game to win this one. Clean up the turnovers and the Steelers will be fine. That's been a problem of late, with Roethlisberger throwing three of them in his past four quarters.

The passing game had looked a bit out of sorts since that explosion against Denver two weeks ago. Roethlisberger talked at length with Martavis Bryant about a route miscommunication that led to an easy interception for Cleveland early in the game.

Connecting with Markus Wheaton on a 40-yarder downfield late in the second quarter got Pittsburgh more comfortable. Three plays later, Roethlisberger rifled the football into Antonio Brown's outstretched hands over the middle for the quarterback's second touchdown of the day.

The Browns' secondary isn't equipped to handle the Steelers for 60 minutes. The only way to change that is by giving the ball away.

Move the ball methodically downfield, let the defense do the rest. The Steelers are getting enough pressure to make Austin Davis uncomfortable.

 

Ben RoethlisbergerAP Photo/Gail Burton, FileBen Roethlisberger and the Steelers watched their grip on a playoff spot disappear in the Week 16 loss at Baltimore.


The day might go like this for those inside FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday ...

Watch a down of the Cleveland Browns-Pittsburgh Steelers game, refresh the New York Jets-Buffalo Bills score on the smartphone. Rinse, repeat about 75 times.

This is particularly the case for Steelers fans, but why not for Browns fans, or fans of the league as a whole? Such a frenetic finish to the season with two teams fighting for the same wild-card spot at the exact same time of day (both kick off at 1 p.m. ET) will be captivating, especially if both the Steelers and Jets play well.

This should be a memorable moment, regardless of outcome. The stakes couldn't be much higher for two teams not actually playing each other.

The Steelers (9-6) were in an unfortunate spot over the past week, because they knew they couldn't wallow in their Week 16 loss at Baltimore, which took their playoff fate out of their own hands. Yet the disappointment was palpable. That all the leverage shifted the way of the Jets (10-5) -- winners of five straight as they walk into Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo -- left the Steelers shaken.

Ben Roethlisberger tried to simplify things during the week, but it's not easy.

“We need to be ready for anything and everything," Roethlisberger said. "That is the preparation we have been doing all week, getting ourselves ready for a little bit of everything.”

Basically, sometimes when you win, you lose. A Jets victory underlines that feeling.

The Steelers don't know exactly what to expect on game day, other than that they need a divisional road win. Linebacker Jarvis Jones said he wonders if the Browns will play Jets-Bills highlights during the game -- "but probably only if the Jets are winning," he added.

Most players said they won't check their phones at halftime, though players chat on the sideline and can probably get score updates pretty easily.

Never could a potential double-digit-win season be so bitter. The Steelers could finish 10-6 and see it matter only for franchise record-book purposes. The Steelers have a chance to clean up the sluggish play that placed them in this predicament, but if they blow out the Browns, they will only wonder why they couldn't reach back for this potency a week earlier.

The Steelers will have a lot to analyze and reflect upon regardless.

"Our attitude regarding our circumstances is a hopeful one," coach Mike Tomlin said. "That’s the only approach that’s helpful to us. We also realize when things are out of your control it's just that."

What's painful for players is they recognize how dangerous they can be in January with an extended chance. Some bettors even have the Steelers' Super Bowl odds higher than some teams guaranteed a playoff spot.

That doesn't quell the uneasiness that will set in if the Steelers are left out of the playoffs for the third time in four years, a sobering reality for such a talented team.

"It's a sick feeling," guard David DeCastro said.

When asked a few weeks ago whether this Steelers team compares in any way to the 2005 or 2008 Super Bowl teams, tight end Heath Miller cautioned, "We're not even in the playoffs yet."

He knows the great teams find a way to secure a spot. Maybe this team shouldn't mistake being dangerous with greatness if it's left out.

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