Arguably no team could have used a first-round bye more than the Steelers, who limp into the playoffs with their quarterback playing on a sprained left ankle, their leading rusher out for the postseason with a right-knee injury and their top pass rusher nursing a strained right hamstring.
Then again, one could argue that the Pittsburgh is getting a bye without actually having the week off, thanks to a wild-card matchup against the Broncos, who have lost three games in a row and scored a grand total of 17 points in the past two weeks.
Assuming the Steelers advance, the question is, How far can they go? Their playoff experience makes them dangerous—they reached the Super Bowl in two of the previous three seasons, winning it all once—but their injuries make them vulnerable.
Isaac Redman will replace running back Rashard Mendenhall, who will miss the playoffs after injuring his knee on Sunday at Cleveland. Redman had 92 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries but also lost two fumbles. The Steelers can get away with such miscues against the Browns, but they don't figure to be as fortunate against better competition.
A greater concern for Pittsburgh is the health of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who will play despite the high-ankle sprain he sustained on Dec. 8. The injury has limited his ability to make plays on the move, which has always been one of his strengths. If the Steelers' running game struggles, the injury could make Roethlisberger a sitting duck.
One positive is that Pittsburgh's defense appears to be stiffening. Outsiders have said the unit is getting too old to succeed at the elite level, but after some inconsistent play early in the season, the Steelers have limited five of their last six opponents to nine points or fewer. Linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison have battled injuries but should be in the lineup against the Broncos. Woodley sat out Sunday's game to rest his hamstring, but he always shows up in the postseason, with at least one sack in each of his seven career playoff games. And unlike in last season, safety Troy Polamalu enters the playoffs healthy and creating havoc. He intercepted a pass on Sunday to set up a touchdown.
Yes, the Steelers are banged up, aging and facing a long road to get back to the Super Bowl. But it would be unwise to look past them.
Drives of five minutes or longer by the Steelers' offense, the most in the NFL in 2011. Pittsburgh was second in the league in time of possession, at 32:33 per game, and averaged a league-high 4:12 per scoring drive.
Seasons in the past five in which the Steelers' defense has finished first in the league. Despite its age—the starters average nearly 30—Pittsburgh's D allowed 271.8 yards and 14.2 points per game, both league bests.
ON THE SPOT
Second-year pro Antonio Brown might not be a household name, but he has become one of the Steelers' playmakers as a receiver and returner. He broke the franchise record for all-purpose yards, with 2,170, and has come up with so many big plays that he was voted team MVP. He has benefited from defenses' paying attention to blazing No. 1 wideout Mike Wallace, who, like Brown, surpassed 1,000 receiving yards this year. With his sure hands, Brown has also earned the trust of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger: The wideout ranks second in the AFC with 29 third-down receptions. Catch him if you can.
CURTAIN CALL Woodley and the Steelers' D have been stingy of late and may have to carry an injury-plagued offense.