The Pittsburgh Steelers are thankful to have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back, because his leadership will be needed when the Steelers host the Cincinnati Bengals in a game that could decide the AFC North Division title.
Roethlisberger returned Monday night after missing three weeks because of knee surgery, but even he wasn’t enough to help Pittsburgh overcome a dominant Indianapolis Colts team in a 26-7 loss.
Steelers coach Bill Cowher spent little time dwelling on the defeat, choosing instead to focus his attention on the division-leading Bengals.
“Obviously, it’s the biggest game of the year, and we all know what’s at stake,” said Cowher, 9-4 at home against the Bengals.
Roethlisberger is far from healthy, and is also suffering from a “pretty painful” right thumb injury. The Steelers QB is hopeful it won’t severely affect his throwing.
“It’s a little sore, but we’re going to try and see if we can get by with it,” said Roethlisberger, who is listed as probable. “A couple of contraptions hopefully will help it.”
Roethlisberger, 18-2 as a starter in the regular season, also tweaked his ankle Monday night.
Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati 27-13 on Oct. 23, but with the loss to the Colts, fell a game behind the Bengals. Should they lose on Sunday, the Steelers would be two back with four games remaining.
The Steelers’ hopes in a crowded wild-card race, in which four teams are battling for two spots, would also take a hit.
“We’ve got to play better than we’re playing,” Cowher said. “There’s no margin for error. They’re playing with a lot of confidence and at a high level. … But the opportunity is right there. If you have the opportunity to win this game, you have a chance to control a lot of your destiny. But we have to play a lot better than we are right now and a sense of urgency to get there.”
Pittsburgh will start Willie Parker at running back after he rushed for 131 yards on just 18 carries in the first meeting.
The 19-point loss to the Colts was the worst in two years for the Steelers, who also have tough games remaining against Chicago (8-3) and at Minnesota (6-5).
The Bengals, meanwhile, can all but wrap up the division with a victory Sunday, as well as guarantee their first winning season since 1990, when they made their last postseason appearance.
Quarterback Carson Palmer has posted a passer rating of at least 100 in 10 of 11 games this season, with the one exception being the loss to the Steelers. Palmer went 21-of-36 for 224 yards, two interceptions and no TDs for a 53.8 rating.
“I put a lot of it on myself,” said Palmer, 0-3 against the Steelers in his career. “I don’t think I’ve played well enough to beat them.
“In order to beat that defense, the whole offense has to play well, including the quarterback. The last couple of times we’ve played them, the offense played well but I didn’t. A lot of it falls on me and puts a lot more pressure on me.”
Cincinnati is rolling offensively, having gained more than 400 total yards each of the last two weeks. They were up 34-0 against the Ravens on Sunday and won 42-29, and nearly outscored high-powered Indianapolis two weeks ago before falling 45-37.
The key has been the play of the offensive line.
“Our job is to make those guys successful,” right tackle Willie Anderson said. “We know no glory is going to come to us. But if we can get our quarterback throwing for 300 yards and after the game he’s not limping and his jersey’s not dirty, and Rudi’s (Johnson) jersey is dirty and he’s running, that’s a good game for us.”
Rudi Johnson needs 32 rushing yards for his second straight 1,000-yard season, and Palmer has thrown at least two touchdown passes in his last seven road games and leads the NFL with 23 touchdown passes.
Wideout Chad Johnson has topped the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the fourth straight year.
While the Bengals have put up impressive offensive numbers, they won’t matter if they lose to the Steelers for a fourth straight time.
“We still have an opportunity to control our own destiny and that’s the best thing,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “We still have an opportunity to win this division—control our destiny—and that’s what we have to keep working at.”