Ben Roethlisberger appears ready to return to the pocket for the Steelers as they wrap up the regular season in Cleveland and learn whether they have to hit the road the following week to start the playoffs or take a bye into a home game in the second round.
The Browns were the ones who injured Roethlisberger. Scott Paxson, a former Steelers defensive lineman, tackled the quarterback in the second quarter Dec. 8 at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger missed the final five minutes of the first half but returned to play the second half despite a high left ankle sprain.
He played the whole game in a 20-3 loss in San Francisco on Dec. 19, then watched on the sideline Saturday as 37-year-old Charlie Batch guided the Steelers to a 27-0 win against St. Louis.
Roethlisberger returned to a full practice Wednesday and looks ready to go.
"I'd like to play just because I like being out there," Roethlisberger said. "I don't know that I necessarily need it. It'd be nice to get another week of rest, but I prefer to play."
The Steelers would like to get him at least 25 to 30 snaps against Cleveland because they don't want him to be inactive from Dec. 19 to the start of the playoffs -- which could be the middle of January if they earn a first-round bye.
He said having last week off did his ankle a world of good.
"The pain is always going to be there. I can deal with the pain, I'm not worried about that. I think the biggest thing is not set myself up to get hurt in other ways or hurt it worse. If I'm a sitting duck back there, that's probably not the smartest thing in the world to do, but if it's just the pain, I'll deal with that."
Roethlisberger and the Steelers struggled to beat the Browns 14-3 at Heinz Field, needing a 79-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown with 2:52 left to put Cleveland away. The Steelers lost two fumbles and one interception that day.
With Roethlisberger hobbling, the Steelers have managed only 10 points in the past seven quarters with him in the lineup.
The Steelers, who have clinched a playoff spot, need a victory in Cleveland and a loss by Baltimore in Cincinnati to earn a top-two seed and a bye in the first week of the postseason. Roethlisberger and others said they have to worry about their own game, but if they get the chance, they will take a peek at the score in Cincinnati.
"Obviously, we have to win the game," Roethlisberger said. "There's a lot of what-if scenarios that can happen. It depends on the score of our game; if we're feeling good and we're playing well and we're up, then yeah, you'd like to know the score. But we have to take care of our business first and foremost."
SERIES HISTORY: 118th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 61-56. Pittsburgh has dominated the matchup for more than a decade. Since the Browns returned as an expansion team in 1999, the Steelers are 22-4 against them. Pittsburgh has won 15 of their past 16, the only loss coming at Cleveland in 2009. On Dec. 8, the Browns hung tough, but the Steelers prevailed 14-3 at Heinz Field. In that game, two Pro Bowlers, QB Ben Roethlisberger and C Maurkice Pouncey, left with high ankle sprains.
--Marcus Gilbert, the Steelers' rookie of the year, returns to start his 14th game at right tackle Sunday one week after he was benched by coach Mike Tomlin for not preparing the previous week in a professional manner.
"It's just something you feel you let your teammates down," Gilbert said. "Coach had to do what he had to do, and I had to put up with the consequences. I'm just moving forward."
--A rare NFL streak is in jeopardy Sunday. Linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are the only teammates in the league have at least 10 sacks apiece in each of the past three seasons. Both have nine, but it appears Woodley will not play Sunday.
"I would have been way past 10 sacks if I'd been playing. Injuries slowed me down," said Woodley, who had all nine of his sacks in the first eight games before missing five games and most of another with a hamstring injury.
--Besides the five Steelers who made the Pro Bowl, Pittsburgh has a ton of alternates. Among them: linebacker James Harrison (first alternate), free safety Ryan Clark (second), linebacker LaMarr Woodley (second), guard Chris Kemoeatu (third), defensive end Brett Keisel (third), linebacker Lawrence Timmons (fourth).
BY THE NUMBERS: 10.0 -- Points per game the Steelers allowed in their eight home games this season, the sixth fewest in their history and fewest since they allowed 9.8 in 2001. Their record low came in 1936, when they allowed 8.2 on average at home.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's an awesome honor. I hope we don't go and play in it." -- Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, on making his second Pro Bowl, a game in which the Super Bowl participants do not play.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--QB Ben Roethlisberger's 3,856 yards passing are second in Steelers history, but he's not likely to break his own record of 4,328 yards, set in 2009. Terry Bradshaw held the record for 20 years after throwing for 3,724 yards in 1979.
--C Maurkice Pouncey, elected as a starter in the Pro Bowl, will return to play Sunday after missing two games with a high ankle sprain.
--WR Emmanuel Sanders, who has missed the past three games with a foot injury, went through an entire practice Wednesday, and he will play Sunday.
--QB Charlie Batch, who improved his record to 5-2 as a starter Saturday, probably will play in the second half against Cleveland on Sunday because the Steelers hope to limit Ben Roethlisberger's snaps.
--WR Antonio Brown, who made his first Pro Bowl in his second season as a return man, also was voted as the fifth wide receiver and should see playing time in the game at that position, too.
--LB James Harrison (neck) did not practice Wednesday but is expected to play Sunday.
--LB LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) was limited in practice Wednesday and is not expected to play Sunday.
--G Doug Legursky (shoulder) will not play. Trai Essex will replace him at left guard.
--RB Mewelde Moore (knee) will not play. Isaac Redman will replace him on third downs, and rookie John Clay will suit up for the second straight game.
--WR Troy Polamalu (knee) did not practice with a new listed injury. He often does not practice on Wednesdays.
GAME PLAN: Even with Ben Roethlisberger likely returning to start at quarterback, the Steelers would like to run the ball again vs. another weak run defense. They ran for 169 last week vs. 32nd-ranked St. Louis, and the Browns are No. 30. On defense, Pittsburgh will concentrate on stopping Peyton Hillis, figuring he gives the Browns their only chance of getting anywhere against them. The Steelers have allowed three 100-yard rushers this season, including Steven Jackson last Saturday.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Steelers ROLB James Harrison, tied with LaMarr Woodley for the team lead with nine sacks, vs. Browns Pro Bowl LT Joe Thomas.
Rookie Browns LDE Jaball Sheard, who played at Pitt and leads the Browns with 7.5 sacks, vs. Steelers rookie ROT Marcus Gilbert, who will return to start after getting benched for poor preparation last week.