In the face of conflicting reports, it’s difficult to tell when the Pittsburgh Steelers will welcome quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back to the lineup after he suffered a mid-foot sprain in his left foot in Sunday’s 38-35 victory over Oakland. But it's quite clear the Steelers need him back as soon as impossible to stay in the AFC playoff race.
While the Steelers still expect the three-time Pro Bowler to comeback from injury for the second time this season, conflicting reports set his recovery time to two or even three weeks.
While the Steelers improved their standing in the AFC Wild-Card race after Roethlisberger largely out-dueled Derek Carr and the Raiders, they’ve been a very different squad without him under center and the more time he misses the murkier the Steelers’ chances of making noise in the playoff race and beyond.
Despite the season-ending knee injury suffered by running back Le’Veon Bell, Roethlisberger overpowered Oakland for 334 yards and two touchdowns while feeding No. 2 back DeAngelo Williams for 170 yards and two more scores.
But Roethlisberger especially makes receiver Antonio Brown one of the most lethal forces in the league. Brown set a new franchise record with 17 receptions for 284 yards against Oakland, far less than the 235 yards he accumulated the four games Roethlisberger was out and veteran Michael Vick and third-year passer Landry Jones took over starting duties.
The best case scenario is obviously a lighter two-week absence, which stands as a possibility given how Roethlisberger returned after missing only four weeks with a sprained MCL in his left knee when the injury could have sidelined him upwards of six weeks.
The Steelers next face a beleaguered Cleveland Browns squad, and then have a bye in Week 11 that allows Roethlisberger and the rest of the team a chance to heal up.
Should the three-week layover occur, however, it could kick off a poor start to a difficult final stretch to the season for Pittsburgh. The Steelers travel to Seattle for Week 12, one of the hardest places to play in the NFL, and next host the AFC North-leading Indianapolis Colts, followed by a trip to meet the Cincinnati Bengals (8-0), and then a home game with the Broncos, before two straight AFC North road trips to Baltimore and Cleveland to end the season.
The win over the Raiders moved the Steelers into the final Wild Card spot, and gave them just the second win in the conference of the season. But a poor outing against Cleveland, or if Roethlisberger comes back too soon and tries to play hurt, could mean the Steelers miss out on a playoff berth.
Both the Raiders and Buffalo Bills are at 4-4, one win shy of equaling the Steelers. They could quickly move up the AFC standings if Pittsburgh flounders.
But Roethlisberger does have a history of quick turnarounds from injury. Though he’s expected to miss a career-high number of games this season, the 33-year-old has never sat out more than four games due to injury in any other season. Back in 2012 he missed four while serving a suspension, and Steelers faithful have to go all the way back to 2005, his second year in the league, to find a time when he missed an equal amount. A knee injury limited Roethlisberger to 12 games that season.
Otherwise Roethlisberger’s played "the ironman" role quite well, and posted a losing record as a starter just once in his 12-year career, going 7-8 in 2006. He’s currently 3-2, totaling 1,508 yards for seven touchdowns and a 92.2 passer rating.