Part of a tight race in the AFC North, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had a week off to rest and hope a banged-up Ben Roethlisberger – among others – is ready for a crucial stretch run.
The Kansas City Chiefs are going to need an entire offseason to get healthy.
The Steelers don’t expect Roethlisberger’s broken thumb to hinder him in Sunday night’s visit to Arrowhead Stadium, where the bumbling Chiefs hope Tyler Palko’s first home start since taking over for the injured Matt Cassel goes much smoother than his road debut.
Pittsburgh (7-3) bounced back from the disappointment of a 23-20 loss to fellow North heavyweight Baltimore on Nov. 6 with a 24-17 win at Cincinnati on Nov. 13, putting a game’s distance between itself and the division’s third playoff contender.
The news wasn’t all good after that victory, as the Steelers learned Roethlisberger suffered a fractured thumb on his throwing hand.
All in all, though, it appears Pittsburgh caught a break. Chicago’s Jay Cutler suffered a similar but more serious injury last weekend and could miss the rest of the regular season.
Roethlisberger didn’t miss a snap against the Bengals and coach Mike Tomlin expects his franchise signal-caller to be ready to go Sunday night – even if he has to wear a splint under his glove.
“There’s a pain tolerance issue,” Tomlin said. “There’s a comfortability issue. All of those things will be sorted out throughout the course of the week. To be honest with you, I’m not overly concerned about his ability to be effective in the midst of this.”
Roethlisberger has spent much of his time in practice this week working out of shotgun and pistol formations. But he doesn’t believe taking direct snaps from center Maurkice Pouncey will be an issue.
“It’s definitely different,” said Roethlisberger, who’s thrown 13 touchdowns passes and four interceptions as Pittsburgh has won five of six. “It hurts, first off, just to grip the ball. It’s something you have to get used to.”
The Chiefs (4-6), meanwhile, found out after a 17-10 loss to Denver on Nov. 13 that they likely lost Cassel for the season to a significant hand injury, a fear that came to fruition Monday when they placed him on injured reserve.
He’s the team’s seventh player to hit IR, joining stars Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki.
That left Palko to make his NFL starting debut later that evening in New England, and despite Kansas City carrying a 3-0 lead late into the second quarter, everything fell apart. The Patriots scored 10 points in the final 4:18 of the first half and didn’t let up after the intermission en route to a 34-3 win, the Chiefs’ third straight loss.
Though Kansas City’s defense certainly had its struggles, Palko’s three interceptions didn’t help.
“This game is hard enough as it is without making mistakes,” said Palko, who had thrown only 13 career passes before Monday night. “When you make mistakes it’s going to show up, and show up at inopportune times.”
Palko is expected to start again even after Kansas City claimed Kyle Orton off waivers Wednesday, and he might not have to worry about turning it over quite as much against the Steelers. Pittsburgh’s defense has forced league lows of six total turnovers and four INTs, though two of those came in the fourth quarter at Cincinnati.
The Steelers are still waiting on the return of linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who’s missed the past two games with a hamstring injury. Woodley participated in some drills early in the week but it’s far from certain he’ll return Sunday.
“You look at guys across the league coming back too early sometimes and next thing you know they’re out 2-3 more weeks,” said Woodley, who had 7 1/2 of his nine sacks in his previous four games. “I’m just trying to be smart about it.”
Safety Troy Polamalu, slowed during the bye week with rib discomfort, is expected to play.
While Pittsburgh has had trouble creating turnovers, Kansas City’s had issues getting to the quarterback despite the presence of Tamba Hali. The Chiefs have a league-low 12 sacks, even with three of Tom Brady on Monday night.
To have a chance at knocking off the Steelers, they’ll likely need to pressure Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh is 12-8 since 2008 when it allows four sacks or more but 28-10 when it surrenders three or fewer.
With Roethlisberger hurting, the Steelers may prefer to make Rashard Mendenhall the focus of the offense. The Chiefs have allowed an average of 153.0 yards rushing in their past five games, fourth-worst in the NFL.
Pittsburgh has won its last three games coming out of a bye by an average of 21.3 points.
Eight of the last nine regular-season meetings in this series have taken place at Arrowhead. Each team has won four of those, with the Steelers outscoring Kansas City 157-156.