PITTSBURGH -- Steelers coach Mike Tomlin classified quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as "questionable" for Sunday night's game against the Ravens, and that means Pittsburgh's chances of winning the AFC North are now officially questionable.
The Steelers (6-3) already trail the Ravens (7-2) by one game, and history says Pittsburgh will struggle to beat Baltimore without the franchise's all-time leading passer. Since 2004, when Roethlisberger became the starter, the Steelers are 0-4 against the Ravens when he doesn't suit up. If the Steelers get swept by the Ravens for a second straight year, they will all but concede the division crown to the Ravens on Dec. 2.
Pittsburgh, though, still has a strong shot at making the playoffs as a wild card with Byron Leftwich at quarterback. The Steelers hold a two-game lead for the sixth and final postseason spot in the AFC and have four winnable games remaining (they play Cleveland twice along with San Diego and Cincinnati at home). Getting to 10 wins should secure a playoff berth in a mediocre AFC this season. While the Steelers have failed to beat Baltimore without Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh is 7-1 against the rest of the league when Roethlisberger is out.
It seems unlikely that Roethlisberger will play the Ravens on Sunday night with a sternoclavicular (SC) sprain on his right shoulder, although Roethlisberger can never be completely ruled out because of his track record of playing with injuries. It will depend on his pain tolerance and getting his throwing motion back.
Roethlisberger's injury comes at a time when the Steelers were gaining momentum and were playing as well as any team in the AFC entering Monday night. Pittsburgh was far from its best against Kansas City, but it was able to find a way to win. The potential loss of Roethlisberger now overshadows the good feelings coming from a four-game winning streak, which is tied with Green Bay, Denver and Indianapolis as the current longest ones in the league.
When Roethlisberger has missed games, it usually comes against the Ravens. In 2005, when Roethlisberger hurt his knee, the Steelers lost at Baltimore, 16-13. At the end of 2007, when the Steelers rested Roethlisberger and other starters for the postseason, Pittsburgh fell at Baltimore, 27-21. In 2009, when Roethlisberger was dealing with a head injury, the Steelers lost at Baltimore, 20-17. And in 2010, when Roethlisberger was finishing up his four-game suspension, Pittsburgh lost at home to the Ravens, 17-14.
The small margin of defeat provides some hope for the Steelers, especially if they can find success against the Ravens' shaky run defense. But the Steelers are dealing with more injuries than the banged-up Ravens.
Pittsburgh's leading receiver (Antonio Brown, ankle) and its leading rusher for the previous three seasons (Rashard Mendenhall, Achilles) are considered questionable, according to Tomlin. Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu (calf) is being described as doubtful.
"We just focus on the healthy guys," Tomlin said. "The injuries are what they are. We’re not looking to make excuses. Excuses are tools of the incompetent. I believe we have a competent football team. The ones who are healthy will prepare and step into the stadium and the level of expectation will be the same."