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Steelers need Hines Ward

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Can the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII without star receiver Hines Ward?

The Steelers are hoping they don't have to find out.

Ward, the Steelers' leading receiver, is expected to miss practice time this week with a sprained MCL in his knee that he suffered Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.

Typically, recoveries from MCL sprains can range 2-4 weeks, depending on the severity. I was among a group of reporters talking to Ward about his chances of playing in the Super Bowl Sunday night, and he seemed confident in his return.

"I will play," Ward said in the locker room. "Rain, sleet or snow, I will be there."

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and teammates also expect Ward to tough it out in two weeks. But let's say Ward doesn't play or, at the very least, participates in a limited role. What does this mean for Pittsburgh?

Nate Washington would be the starter. Washington has come up with big catches all year as the No. 3 receiver. But he's mostly beaten backup cornerbacks and could struggle against Arizona starters Rod Hood and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Washington had three receptions for 21 yards replacing Ward against Baltimore.

This also would mean rookie second-round pick Limas Sweed would get significant playing time. Pittsburgh loves to run three-wide receiver sets, particularly on third down. So after sitting on the bench most of this season, Sweed will have to be ready for the opportunity. He dropped a big touchdown catch against Baltimore but bounced back with a pair of receptions and a crushing block on Ravens defensive back Corey Ivy.

Starting receiver Santonio Holmes would take over as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's top target. Holmes had a huge, 65-yard touchdown reception, which was his second score of the playoffs.

"I told [Ward] when we came into the locker room at halftime that I had his back," Holmes said. "If there was going to be a play to be made, I was going to be the guy to make the play."

Even if Ward plays, he will be coming off an injury and mostly likely not at 100 percent. So players like Holmes, Washington and Sweed will need to be ready to step up on the big stage.