Trying to get a feel for how the Pittsburgh Steelers will perform in another trip to the playoffs is far from easy.
Finishing the season with wins in six of seven games creates the impression that they're peaking at the right time. Then again, I keep thinking of seeing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger being strapped to a stretcher and rolled off the field after suffering a concussion against the Cleveland Browns two weeks ago.
According to every report out of Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger is doing well and is ready to go today when the Steelers host the San Diego Chargers. Coach Mike Tomlin might not appear concerned, and Roethlisberger might be putting on a good face, but it's rare that a player can be 100 percent two weeks after suffering a concussion.
There's no doubt that it would help the Steelers to have a healthy Roethlisberger in order to advance to the AFC Championship Game. His statistics are down from what fans have grown to expect, but he has the intangibles to make key plays, particularly late in games.
What helps the Steelers, as opposed to other playoffs teams, is a defense that's rated near the top in many statistical categories. If Roethlisberger shows ill effects from the concussion, the Steelers can still prevail because of a shut-down defense and a Heinz Field crowd that won't allow the Chargers to settle into a comfort zone.
This version of the Steelers is different than the team that won the Super Bowl in the 2005 season. Roethlisberger was healthy and near the top of his game three years ago. In addition, the ground game that has been the hallmark of Steelers offenses was relentless behind a powerful offensive line and the running combination of Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker.
Bettis is now a member of NBC's broadcasting team. Guard Alan Faneca is with the New York Jets, and center Jeff Hartings, who was a key to the efficiency of the line, has retired.
The ground game this season isn't comparable to the 2005 team. That could even the playing field today, especially with a weather forecast that's better suited for Barrow, Alaska.
In 2005 Roethlisberger was afforded excell ent protection. He could stand tall in the pocket and easily pick out targets. This season, as was the case in 2007, Roethlisberger has been an easy target behind a poor pass-blocking line. He was sacked 46 times before being leveled against the Browns in the regular-season finale.
If sounds like a difficult task today for the Steelers, but you have to remember that they're hosting the Chargers. You know, the team that plays half of its games and practices every day in tropical weather conditions. Like most teams that play in the west, winning in the eastern part of the country especially in bad weather is often asking too much.
The Chargers won't have running back LaDainian Tomlinson, although Darren Sproles is a quality replacement. It seems improbable that the Chargers will have success on the ground, and don't look for quarterback Philip Rivers to do much through the air.
This game is tailor-made for the Steelers' swarming defense. Assuming the unit is able to keep the Chargers' offense under control, Roethlisberger won't have to win the game with his right arm.
It should be a smash-mouth game, which is a perfect for the Steelers in the cold of January. It's rare to see the Steelers lose a home playoff game when the style of play fits them perfectly.
It should be low scoring and close, with the Steelers moving on with a 17-13 win.