Up next: Hurt Steelers may be without Big Ben

Pittsburgh's chances at winning its second consecutive AFC North Division title and fourth in five years are fading. The Steelers have only three more games in order to finish one ahead of Baltimore and that was a long shot even before the devastation wreaked on them in their 14-3 victory Thursday against Cleveland.


The Steelers next play the 49ers at Candlestick Park on Monday night, and that was considered their toughest test down the stretch no matter the circumstances. Now they may have to play without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, not to mention without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey.

Roethlisberger and Pouncey have severe high ankle sprains – although not the most severe – and their availability against the 49ers is in doubt. Not only that, but the Steelers lost starting defensive end Ziggy Hood to a groin injury and safety Troy Polamalu has shoulder and hamstring injuries.

The Steelers are on the verge of clinching a wild-card playoff berth and coach Mike Tomlin might have to decide what's more important to his team, desperately trying to win the division title in what may be a fruitless attempt under good conditions, or resting his quarterback and center to get them ready for the post-season.

Roethlisberger will play in San Francisco if he can; that is his history, and a wounded Roethlisberger is a much better option than Charlie Batch. Batch performed superbly during Roethlisberger's four-game suspension to start the 2010 season, but had the benefits of training camp and practices beforehand.

Batch, who turned 37 on Dec. 5, has not completed a pass this season, but then he's only thrown two, both against Cleveland. He's been sacked as often as he's thrown a pass, twice. He mopped up during the Steelers' 35-7 victory against the Bengals in their game four days earlier and then played over the final six minutes of the first half against Cleveland.

"You would love a full week to prepare if you're going to play," said Batch, who normally handles the scout-team quarterback duties and gets very little time with the real offense in practice. "But there are times you may get the ball in the fourth quarter and it's third-and-12 and you have to go out and play."

Batch moved into the starting job as a rookie with the Detroit Lions in 1998 and remained so until an injury ended his 2001 season. He signed as a free agent with his hometown Steelers in 2002. He started two games in 2005 for an injured Roethlisberger, both victories that helped them win a playoff spot on way to their Super Bowl championship.

TRENDING: It was long conceded that Mike Wallace had become the top dog among receivers, but Antonio Brown is staking his claim. He's led the team in yards or receptions in each of the past six games and now his 55 catches are only seven behind Wallace and his 925 yards are only 109 back of the team leader.

LINEUP WATCH: Chris Kemoeatu, who lost his four-year job at left guard to Doug Legursky, is unlikely to re-enter the lineup if Legursky has to play center. Guard/tackle Trai Essex is the likely starter because of Kemoeatu's three major penalties against the Browns in a short period after Maurkice Pouncey was hurt.

PLAYER NOTES

--- WR Hines Ward needs to average three receptions per game over the final three to hit 1,000 for his career. With 37 catches, he's fallen to fourth on the team.

--- SS Troy Polamalu recorded his first interception in the 13th game. He had seven last season when he was NFL defensive player of the year. He has 28 for his career, tying Jack Lambert for ninth in club history.

--- WR Mike Wallace's 61 receptions are one more than he had last season, a new career high. His average, though, is down from 21.0 per catch in 2010 to 16.7.

--- RB Rashard Mendenhall moved into 11th among Steelers career rushers with 3,149 and will move to ninth with another 195 yards.

--- QB Ben Roethlisberger has 3,526 yards passing this season, third most in team history and can pass No. 2 Terry Bradshaw with another 199 yards. Roethlisberger's 4,328 yards in 2009 is the team record.


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