The San Diego Chargers look like a team beyond repair.
Roethlisberger’s return could help the Steelers further tighten their grip on an AFC wild-card spot Sunday against San Diego, which is 0-14 all-time at Pittsburgh and will be eliminated from playoff contention with one more loss.
It seemed the Steelers’ playoff hopes were in trouble two weeks ago as they dropped two straight divisional games after losing Roethlisberger - and later backup quarterback Byron Leftwich - due to injury. But after a 23-20 win last Sunday in Baltimore, Pittsburgh (7-5) is within two games of the first-place Ravens in the AFC North and owns the final wild-card spot in the conference.
Pittsburgh’s outlook appears even brighter with Thursday’s news that Roethlisberger will start this game. He had missed the last three with a sprained right shoulder and dislocated rib. Roethlisberger said he felt “good” after practicing for the second straight day Thursday.
It certainly appears his team is confident he’s ready. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said he believes Roethlisberger can make all the necessary throws. Tight end Heath Miller said he hasn’t noticed any drop off in velocity from Roethlisberger, who took “90 percent” of the snaps with the first team Thursday.
“He’s still getting back into his rhythm,” receiver Emmanuel Sanders said a day earlier. “… We’re very optimistic about the direction he’s going to go.”
Without Roethlisberger, last Sunday’s game in Baltimore - where the Ravens had won 16 consecutive games - seemed like a daunting challenge for a Pittsburgh team using its third-string quarterback. Charlie Batch who turned 38 on Wednesday, easily outplayed Joe Flacco while the Steelers’ league-best defense lived up to its billing.
Pittsburgh will still need the Ravens to lose two more games to have any shot at the division title, but they don’t see gaining home-field advantage in the playoffs as a necessity.
Wild-card teams have won three of the last seven Super Bowls, including the Steelers in 2006.
“We’ve just got to get a ticket,” linebacker Larry Foote said. “The last few years, the Giants have done it, and Green Bay has done it.”
While Roethlisberger is expected to take the field, veteran cornerback Ike Taylor’s streak of 135 consecutive games played will definitely end after he fractured his right ankle on the second play against Baltimore. Taylor has started 119 games for Pittsburgh since 2003.
The Steelers looked fine without Taylor as the league’s top pass defense (166.7 yards per game) limited Flacco to 16-of-34 passing for 188 yards and sacked him three times. They got a boost from the return of safety Troy Polamalu who hadn’t played since Oct. 7 because of a strained calf, and he should receive more work this week as the Steelers gradually ease him back.
“They’re both talented young guys who are continuing to improve and prove that the stage isn’t too big for them,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, we need them to answer the bell as we continue to push into a territory that we haven’t been in.”
San Diego (4-8) is one loss away from uncharted territory - a losing season under Norv Turner. The Chargers have yet to beat a team with a winning record, and last Sunday’s 20-13 home loss to Cincinnati marked their fourth straight defeat and second in a row where they squandered a fourth-quarter lead.
Philip Rivers has struggled during the four-game skid with six touchdown passes compared to five interceptions while fumbling five times.
The offensive line has had trouble over the last three contests, as Rivers has been sacked 14 times while the rushing game has all but disappeared, averaging 63.3 yards. That unit now could be missing tackles Jeromey Clary and Mike Harris and guard Tyronne Green due to injuries.
“If we go in there with three new starting offensive linemen, guys that I haven’t met yet, and we’re playing the Steelers in Pittsburgh, it will be a challenge,” said Turner, 0-6 all-time versus the Steelers.
The Chargers have failed to score 20 points in back-to-back contests for the first time since Turner’s first two games as their coach in 2007. Since Nov. 11, San Diego’s 18.3 points per game rank 25th in the NFL and their 320.0 yards per game are 26th.
“We’re fighting like crazy to score,” Rivers said. “We’re in a rut and all we can do is keep playing.”
Falling in Pittsburgh for the 15th time in as many regular-season trips would leave San Diego with its first losing season since going 4-12 in 2003.
These teams haven’t met since 2009, when Roethlisberger threw for 333 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-28 home win. He’s 3-1 with a 97.7 passer rating against the Chargers.