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If Steelers want division, Big Ben must play Monday on bad ankle

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Pittsburgh's season could hinge on Roethlisberger's injured joint (ouch, don't look) Monday night. (AP)  
Pittsburgh's season could hinge on Roethlisberger's injured joint (ouch, don't look) Monday night. (AP)  

Now, more than ever, the Pittsburgh Steelers need Ben Roethlisberger in the huddle.

I know, the guy has a high ankle sprain, and it's an injury that can sideline players for weeks. Only it's a Grade One sprain, which is not as severe as others, and Roethlisberger is one of the league's toughest and most resilient athletes. So his status for this week is unknown.

Only it's not. He absolutely, positively must play if the Steelers are going to win a game and maybe, just maybe, their division.

That's because Pittsburgh next game is Monday night in San Francisco, and check the schedule, people: The 49ers are the Steelers' last difficult opponent. After that, they draw St. Louis and Cleveland, and let's be honest: They can and should win both without Roethlisberger.

Which is precisely my point.

The way I see it, Pittsburgh is staring at a one-game season. Win Monday, and it probably runs the table, finishing 13-3. It might win the division, too, gaining a first-round bye and, possibly, home-field advantage.

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But lose? Well, then they risk ceding the AFC North to archrival Baltimore and entering the playoffs as a wild card. Of course, that's OK, too. I mean, Pittsburgh has won four of its last five road games this season and won Super Bowl XL as a No. 6 seed.

Nevertheless, given the choice, you want to be home.

And Pittsburgh could be. But first it must win its division, which is why having Roethlisberger on Monday is critical. With him, the Steelers have a chance to beat San Francisco; without him, they don't. Simple as that. I know, coaches and physicians will make the call, but if I'm coach Mike Tomlin, I do whatever I can to make him sure I have Roethlisberger next Monday.

Because after that, I don't really care.

I know I can beat St. Louis and Cleveland with Charlie Batch at quarterback. Heck, I know I can beat them with Charlie Brown at quarterback. The two are a combined 6-18, haven't won in three weeks and rank 30th and 32nd in scoring. In short, they're doormats. So those are games where Roethlisberger's involvement is not as crucial as it is next week.

But to make them meaningful, Pittsburgh first must get through next Monday ... which means Roethlisberger must be involved.

I understand that Pittsburgh's offensive line isn't terrific protecting the passer and that Roethlisberger's mobility will be limited. But, with the exception of rookie Aldon Smith, the 49ers aren't a terrific pass-rushing defense. Their stops come from the league's No. 1-ranked run defense, sure tackling and tight coverages. So maybe Roethlisberger can operate on one leg, as he did last week vs. Cleveland.

Pittsburgh's future could depend on it.

The Steelers are tied with Baltimore for first in the AFC North, but the Ravens hold the tiebreaker, thanks to two defeats of Pittsburgh. The Ravens will play Sunday in San Diego, or a day before the Steelers take on San Francisco, so Pittsburgh will know where it stands with Baltimore before it takes the field.

If the Ravens win, they put the heat on Pittsburgh to stay with them. If they lose, they put more pressure on Pittsburgh to jump to the head of the class. Either way, they squeeze the quarterback, and let's just say the nine days between games works in Pittsburgh's favor.

A head coach I spoke to Tuesday said he has had players with Grade One sprains who missed two or three weeks. He also had one who played the next weekend.

"There's really no telling," he said.

Yes, there is, because we know what the next game means to Pittsburgh, which is everything. If they win their last three starts, they force Baltimore to stay perfect, too, to capture the division and gain a first-round bye -- something that would be enormous for a club that won 17 of its past 18 at home.

But if Baltimore falters, Pittsburgh is there to take its place, and having a first-round bye would go a long way toward healing Roethlisberger.

Big Ben was still in a walking boot Tuesday, and people close to the team don't expect him to try to practice -- if he practices at all -- until the end of the week. But he doesn't need to practice. I covered a team years ago where the starting quarterback missed a week because of injury, suited up Sunday, then threw for 300 yards.

Of course, he wasn't dealing with a high ankle sprain. People tell me it often is easier to recover from that injury the second time than it is the first, and Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey is proof. His first high ankle sprain kept him out of Super Bowl XLV. He suffered his second last Thursday, the same night as Roethlisberger, and was out of his boot by Monday.

But Pouncey isn't my concern here. His quarterback is.

Essentially, if Roethlisberger can gut it out Monday, he doesn't have to play much ... if at all ... vs. St. Louis and Cleveland. Plus, if the Steelers win the division, he gains a two-week break before playing again.

That's a lot of time off between now and the divisional playoffs, and that's just what a quarterback with a bad ankle needs. Only to make it there, Pittsburgh must somehow, some way, get Roethlisberger through its game with San Francisco.

The Steelers' chances of winning a division not only depend on it. Their chances of repeating as AFC champions might, too.

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