At this point in the regular season, even the healthiest guys are banged up. A quick glance around the NFL will show injury reports that feature half of each team. It's just the reality of a very physically-demanding National Football League.
The 11-4 Pittsburgh Steelers are no different, if not worse off than other teams.
This season, the Steelers have had to play the majority of its season without its second most important defensive player, defensive end Aaron Smith.
The Steelers' most important defensive player, Troy Polamalu, has also been sidelined recently with an Achilles injury that has forced the team to play differently—and less effectively—than it normally would.
To top it all off, Ben Roethlisberger was forced to sit out the team's first four games of the season, due to Emperor Goodell's suspension for what may or may not have happened during the offseason.
Despite all that, all the Pittsburgh Steelers need to do to secure a first round bye is defeat the Cleveland Browns next Sunday.
Sounds easy enough, right?
Not so fast because next week begins the real quest to getting what Steelers fans covet the most this holiday season: Lombardi Trophy No. 7.
First Round Bye: First things first and that is getting into the playoffs with momentum.
The Steelers know that they are already in, regardless of what happens next Sunday. However, the comments from players after Thursday's beat down of the Carolina Panthers leads me to believe that every man who puts on black and gold over a pair of pads next Sunday in Cleveland knows how important a division crown is.
A division crown means rest, something this team can sorely use. Aside from the aforementioned defensive stars, the tattered offensive line can certainly use the extra week to try to heal up a bit.
On the same token, the play of the offensive line coincides with the health of Big Ben who is dealing with a recently broken nose and a broken foot. No quarterback outside of Pennsylvania has the escape ability that Roethlisberger possesses, but he cannot continue to take the punishment that he's taken the last several weeks.
Of course, the Browns would love nothing more than to snatch that bye week right out from under the Steelers. It would be an all too familiar feeling for the Men of Steel.
Last season, the Steelers went into Cleveland in Week 14 with a 6-6 record, in the midst of a four-game losing streak. In what was a virtual must-win game, the Steelers meekly fell 13-6. The game would prove back-breaking, as Pittsburgh would pull it together to win its final three games, only to miss the playoffs by a single game.
The formula for the Steelers this season in Cleveland should be pretty simple: play Steelers football. If this team runs the ball and plays stout defense, it'll have the luxury of watching the wild card games from a nice, warm couch.
Getting Past the Two-Headed Monster: That very important division crown also means putting off a meeting with the one team Steelers fans probably want to avoid at all costs.
That moster would be Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the two constants on the team that has given the Steelers the most trouble over the past decade, the New England Patriots.
Aside from a 2004 regular season game, Brady and Belichick have owned the Steelers when both are in commission (I'm not counting the 2008 game that Matt Cassel started). The Pats didn't even let the Steelers bask in the glory of that 2004 victory long, as the team came back to Pittsburgh two and a half months later and outclassed the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
For whatever reason the great Dick LeBeau and his defense has never been able to figure out how to take down Brady and Belichick.
They've got about a month to figure it out now.
That's not to say that the Pittsburgh Steelers or the New England Patriots are guaranteed a spot in the AFC Championship Game. There will be a few guys in Baltimore, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and New York who have something to say about that.
However, it certainly seems that if the Steelers end up in Arlington, the team will have to vanquish the mighty Pats.
I wish I could elaborate on how the Steelers should go about doing that, but I have absolutely no idea. The Steelers have people way smarter than me who have yet to figure it out, so I'd just be wasting your time.
But keep this in mind Steelers fans: if the heartbreak of 2004 taught you anything, it's that it's awfully hard to beat a really good team twice in the span of a few months.