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Roethlisberger's foot injury raises playoff concerns in tight AFC North

PITTSBURGH -- The two big questions in the NFL today revolve around the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wake of their odd and compelling 14-3 victory over Cleveland Thursday night at Heinz Field.

1. How bad is the Ben Roethlisberger foot and high-ankle-sprain injury -- the left foot looked crushed and grotesque on replay from the second-quarter sack by Scott Paxson -- and will he miss the Steelers' Monday-nighter next week at San Francisco because of it?

2. Will Steelers linebacker James Harrison get suspended or face or a huge fine because of his helmet-to-helmet hit on Colt McCoy with six minutes left?

On Roethlisberger:

We've seen the Roethlisberger tough-man stuff before, so I don't put anything past him. I was amazed to see him come back in the game for the second half after his left ankle and foot got crumpled by defensive tackle Paxson (his first career sack). "He earned my respect for life after that,'' said Steeler wideout Jerricho Cotchery. Could he be ready, somehow, for the game at Candlestick in 10 days? Let's see what the MRI in Pittsburgh today shows; X-rays last night revealed no break in the ankle or foot. This may be a matter of pain tolerance, but high ankle sprains are handled in different ways by different players.

But if you could have seen Roethlisberger last night around midnight, trying to make his way through the locker room, you'd have some real questions about his readiness anytime soon. I saw Roethlisberger putting so little pressure on the foot while walking to the shower that a 10-second walk took two minutes. When he came back to the locker room, I asked him if he'd seen the replay yet. "Nope,'' he said. "Bad?'' You're not going to want to see it, I said. And I asked him what it felt like when it happened. "I thought it was broken,'' he said.

In the second half, Roethlisberger had to play tentatively. It was difficult for him to hand off and to drop back to pass; I was surprised the Steelers didn't have him more in the shotgun, where he wouldn't have to move as much. I got scores of tweets last night incredulous that I had my doubts about him being ready to play against the Niners. I understand. Roethlisberger's been a tough customer, as he illustrated last night and for much of his career. And I don't doubt he might be able to get taped liked a mummy, maybe shot up with a painkiller, and be able to play. But you had to see what I saw in the hour after this game. Roethlisberger looked awful. We'll see how much pain he can take and how stationary a game plan the Steelers can create for him, if he decides to give it a shot in San Francisco.

Of course, a loss now could doom Pittsburgh's chances to beat out Baltimore for first place in the AFC North -- and, now, a possible vital bye for Roethlisberger in the first round of the playoffs. A tie with Baltimore does Pittsburgh no good because the Ravens have the tiebreaker edge. Each team has three losses now. A fourth in San Francisco could mean a wild-card game, on the road, for the Steelers, and no week off. So Roethlisberger and the Steelers may look at this upcoming game with more importance than you'd think.

On Harrison:

I've watched the replay maybe 10 times now. Colt McCoy leaves the pocket, runs to his left, tucks the ball under his right arm, and a step or step-and-a-half before making contact with Harrison, pulls the ball out and quickly flips it to Montario Hardesty. Harrison hits McCoy helmet-to-helmet right in McCoy's facemask, and McCoy falls to the turf. Harrison gets flagged for roughing the passer.

Here's where the debate comes in, and why I believe it will be hard for the NFL to suspend Harrison: If McCoy was viewed as a runner -- which he surely would be while having the ball tucked under his arm, with no intention of throwing it -- then once he is out of the pocket, he is treated like a running back, not a quarterback. And a runner can be hit helmet-to-helmet without penalty.

But if a quarterback leaves the pocket with the intention still to pass, he loses some protection from the rules of being in the pocket. He can be hit low, and the one-step rule about hitting a quarterback after the release of the ball goes away.

After the game, Harrison told reporters: "From what I understand, once the quarterback leaves the pocket, he's considered a runner.''

Not exactly. If he leaves the pocket and looks to be intending to throw, he can't be hit helmet-to-helmet. If he leaves the pocket and appears to be a runner, he can be hit helmet-to-helmet.

It'll be a close call for discipline czars Ray Anderson and Merton Hanks to decide next week. And Harrison should have aimed lower anyway. But I don't know how they look at the replay and say McCoy isn't a runner when he has the ball tucked under his right arm. And is running.

One of my favorite podcasts of the year so far, with USC quarterback Matt Barkley and NBC and Showtime analyst Cris Collinsworth as guests. The podcast is on iTunes and SI.com.

Collinsworth on my story on the mental and physical health of the 1986 Bengals 25 years later, and on the impact of yesteryear's playing fields: "I'm gonna tell you that at Riverfront Stadium, where we played the majority of our games, it was not a whole lot more than a piece of carpet over a concrete base. ... I landed on that thing a lot. And when your head hit that, there was no bounce. It was concrete. When I look back on it, I really do believe that ... had we had the opportunity to play on the FieldTurf or play on the grass field, that I probably could have played a few extra years. I don't doubt that.''

Collinsworth on the Lions' lack of discipline: "There's nothing tough about tossing a football at a guy. There's nothing tough about taking your hand after the play and smacking the facemask of the other guy. There's nothing tough about pushing the referee. There's nothing tough about stomping on the arm of an offensive lineman lying on the ground. There's nothing tough about that. You want to be tough? Be tough. Go kick somebody's ass. That's what the game is all about.''

Barkley on his decision whether to stay at USC for a fourth football season or enter the 2012 draft: "I really am torn, still at this point. I haven't reached any decision because, like you said, both sides of this equation, my two options, they seem so perfect. And being able to come back and play for the Rose Bowl and possible national championship ... it could definitely be something special [at USC] next year. And at the same time, as you look at the other part of this, playing in the NFL has always been one of my dreams. And I believe I set myself up to do well ... Both of these situations seem like the perfect deal for me.''

San Diego left tackle Jared Gaither (No. 78) and left guard Tyronne Green (No. 69). Gaither and Green were considered poor substitutes for Pro Bowl tackle Marcus McNeill and guard Kris Dielman, but last week at Jacksonville, they combined to allow just one quarterback pressure and no sacks. They'll need to be similarly flawless down the stretch to give Philip Rivers a chance to throw the Chargers back into contention, starting Sunday at home against the slumping Bills.

1. The state of Adrian Peterson. Back at practice Thursday, so he could torment Detroit Sunday. Not as optimistic: Christian Ponder, just coming into his own. His hip pointer has held him out all week, and it's looking like Joe Webb could get the call.

2. The state of the franchise of the Giants. Not much at stake Sunday night in Dallas. Just the fate of the NFC East (Giants fall two games out with three to play with a loss) and the fate of Tom Coughlin's future. The G-Men have lost four in a row. Make it five, and alarm bells go off, and the Bill Cowher rumor mill starts big-time.

3. Tim Tebow trying for 7-1. Amazing, isn't it? Tebowing has become a national kneel, and when you blow a late lead in sports, you've gotten Tebowed. The Bears are next. With a bad quarterback situation.

4. Vick comes back against the intriguing Dolphins. After missing three games with two broken ribs, Michael Vick returns to face Miami, 4-1 since an 0-7 start. Better wear the flak jacket, Michael.

5. The rumor mill. Steve Spagnuolo and Norv Turner and a cast of maybe 10 men are endangered as we enter the home stretch of the season. I expect the pre-game shows to be chock full of fresh news about who's in and who's out -- and I'll have an eye open for Raheem Morris in the next month.

6. The great story that is T.J. Yates. All he's done in six quarters of football is save the win over Jacksonville and engineer a win over the Falcons. Now the Bengals and their mixed-up blitzes are in store. "It's like nothing surprises him,'' says Arian Foster.

7. The latest installment in 'As The Lions Turn.' The game with Minnesota at Ford Field is the second game with Ndamukong Suh serving his suspension, and a win is essential if the Lions want to salvage a shot at the playoffs. It'd be a good idea, too, if they stopped playing like a bunch of angry young men (see Collinsworth quote, above).

8. Tyler Palko's task. All Palko has to do is beat the Jets on the road (Sunday) and the Packers the next week at home to give Kansas City a legit shot at the playoffs.

9. More Peyton Manning rumors. They're starting to bore me now. Can we have some originality, please? Like something different than the (no duh) Jimmy Irsay line about Manning not playing in the last four games of the season? There's a stunner.

10. Perfection and the Pack. Green Bay's 12-0. Beat-up Oakland comes to town, meaning the Packers should be 13-0 Sunday night. Then the Chiefs, Bears and Lions -- oh my -- and we're talking about the second perfect regular season in the last four years.

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