“Survive and advance” is a popular mantra come playoff time. It works during the regular season, too. Sure, it's great when everything is clicking like it has this season teams like New England and Cincinnati, but there is an art to gutting out a few wins when the story goes off script.
Very little this season has gone according to plan for the Pittsburgh Steelers, including their 30–9 win over Cleveland. And yet, here they sit with a 6–4 record, in control of an AFC wild-card spot as they head into their bye.
Getting there required yet another on-the-fly adjustment. QB Ben Roethlisberger dressed Sunday, one week after he was carted off with a foot sprain, but Landry Jones got the start. The goal was to keep Roethlisberger on the bench unless absolutely necessary; the Steelers clearly believed they could take down Cleveland with Jones at the helm.
Jones lasted all of two possessions before he had his left ankle stepped on, an injury that suddenly forced Roethlisberger into action. From there, he casually threw for 379 yards and three touchdowns.
In a season where few teams, outside of the three remaining undefeated, have done anything to stand out (and Sunday's early games were reminder of the mediocrity out there), the Steelers are starting to do so. Mainly because of what Roethlisberger brings to the table, no matter whether he's 100% healthy or not.
The mere fact that he was active indicated that Pittsburgh knew it needed to win this game at all costs. If the Steelers were in better shape overall, or had more faith in their backup QBs (Jones and Michael Vick), they would have given Roethlisberger the day off entirely. Myriad pregame questions arose about the setup—why dress Roethlisberger if he wasn't able to start? Well, there was some internal doubt that Jones could win a critical home game against a Cleveland team that has played many of its opponents tough. They cannot be a playoff threat without Roethlisberger at close to full strength.
Give credit to the Steelers' staff. Earlier in the week, coach Mike Tomlin had said that the door was “slightly ajar” for Roethlisberger to play Sunday, in spite of reports that he could miss several weeks with that foot injury. The decision to put Roethlisberger in uniform may not have saved the season—it's too early to refer to what happened Sunday in such terms—but it may have saved this game.
Little else matters in the hectic NFL. While those “one game at a time” cliches sound dismissive, they're accurate. You can't worry about how Roethlisberger might feel in Week 12 at Seattle or in January when he's needed to score a victory right now.
This is how Pittsburgh has traversed the season so far. It started without Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant in the lineup due to suspension. Then Roethlisberger missed four weeks with a knee injury. Just as Big Ben returned, Bell suffered a season-ending knee injury. And then Roethlisberger injured his foot.
Every team has injuries, of course, but the teams who best cover up those setbacks tend to be playing on past Week 17. It doesn't always happen—just ask Dallas about losing Tony Romo or San Diego about bleeding offensive linemen. The Steelers could have let this season get away from them at several different stops. Instead, they'll come out of their week off with a clear path to the playoffs.
Would they prefer to be leading the division? And have Roethlisberger, Bell and everyone else on their roster readily feeling great? Obviously, but that's not always how these things work out. Pittsburgh, and its quarterback, are merely staying the course.
Survive and advance. Even in November.