Back on Nov. 25, as the Pittsburgh Steelers prepared to play the Seattle Seahawks, I took my usual array of dim-witted questions to Ben Roethlisberger and his weekly Wednesday morning foray into the land of the dim-witted.
By the end of the show, I was left with only these two:
Q: Is that a playoff beard?
Roethlisberger just laughed and said, "This is just growing a beard."
And my hard-hitting follow, which sent the pack of reporters screaming for the cafeteria, was:
Q: You're not picking up for Keisel?
"No," Ben said. "I don't think anybody can do that."
But I left unsatisfied. I did think it was a playoff beard, but how presumptuous would such an answer be from him at that point? I mean, it's not like other sports in which nearly every team makes the playoffs.
Roethlisberger played well that week. The entire team did. They lost to the Seahawks,but I considered it a breakthrough of sorts. I felt the team learned something about playing on the road by competing so well in that House of Lunacy.
Eventually, Roethlisberger did in fact guide the team into the playoffs, but he didn't do it with much joy. If we are to believe that a picture stands for a thousand words, I could end this column with this picture following the win over Cleveland:
Or this picture following the playoff win over Cincinnati:
Why does Ben look so glum? I wondered if perhaps something was wrong.
A. Is everything OK and is everyone healthy back home?
B. Is Ben just tired of being hit?
C. And might he think about his future with his kids and suddenly up and retire?
D. Or is he simply withholding smiles until he runs across something about which to smile? After all, he's beaten those Ohio teams rather easily his entire life.
So I went with D and decided that Roethlisberger has discounted these wins that seem to matter so much to Steelers fans, and has instead gone Big Game Hunting.
(And wouldn't the specter of the true Big Game Hunter, Brett Keisel, figure into that, too?)
And then along came Denver and Peyton Manning, one of two AFC quarterbacks with whom Roethlisberger's career has been compared at just about every mile marker. The other, Tom Brady, would have to wait a week.
Could Roethlisberger finally put his legacy in the fast lane with wins over each?
Yes, I presumed, that is what would make Ben smile these days.
But as the game against Manning and the Broncos dawned, I began to have doubts. The Denver defense will be completely healthy, and in the land of home-crowd noise a player such as Von Miller could not, would not, should not, be held in check. The Steelers blocked that important aspect of the Broncos' arsenal four weeks ago, but that was at Heinz Field. Now, the Broncos are home, rested, healthy and have revenge on their plate. And they have Manning at quarterback.
Someone from Denver asked me to name the keys behind the Steelers' revitalized defense down the stretch here. I ticked off the following names: Matt Hasselbeck, A.J. McCarron, Brock Osweiler, Ryan Mallett, Austin Davis.
Yes, backup quarterbacks in the last six games have played a huge part in the Steelers' potent new look on defense.
That had been my other worry about the Steelers in these playoffs, that an honest-to-goodness starting quarterback would swoop in and finish off this 2015 season. So, at the beginning of this week, I figured that starting quarterback would be Manning.
No, he can't throw anymore, but he can make his offense effective simply by not making dumb mistakes, and then the pass-rushers and superb cover men on the Broncos defense would find a way to finish the job.
But then Antonio Brown was ruled out. And I changed my mind.
I now believe the Steelers are going to find a way to win.
Yes, without their MVP, they are better.
Makes about as much sense as the rest of this column.
But I think you know where I'm going with this, because I believe this puts Roethlisberger on an even bigger stage with an even bigger challenge. He can truly cement his legacy as one of the all-time greats by winning a game he's definitely not supposed to win.
If you don't believe that, read what one of the local guys wrote this morning:
* "Only in the only in the Land of Make-Believe can the Steelers ... corral (the) Denver Broncos on Sunday."
* "The Steelers' other receivers aren't about to 'settle down and really find their niche' at Sports Authority Field on Sunday."
* "Like dragons, those Steelers don't exist."
The latter line was in regard to the two-week-old thinking about the Steelers being the team no one wanted to play in the playoffs.
Remember those Steelers? But these Steelers are without the best running back in the NFL, the best receiver in the NFL and are down to only a portion of perhaps the best Big Game Hunter of a QB in the NFL.
Yeah, it's a Burfecta of losses. But, there's still a portion of one of the NFL's greatest sets of triplets of all-time still standing. And no doubt someone is feeding him those Steelers-can't-do-it lines this morning.
Can Ben summon the strength to forever etch his name among the all-time greats by doing what they're saying can't be done?
I have a feeling, and I took it to a couple of the players following Friday's practice.
"He's got a great legacy already," said Ramon Foster. "This guy's a two-time Super Bowl champion, man. Us, as a team, it'll define us more than it will him. That guy's accomplished a lot. There are a lot of guys on this team that don't have rings. So we have to find a way to win."
But don't you think, Ramon, that he, Adrenaline Junkie, will look at this as the ultimate challenge and respond as such?
"He's a gamer," Foster said. "I'd rather have him on our side than anybody in this league, as far as trying to win a game. That guy's the type of guy who knows how to make it happen."
Thanks. Now, what about the practice? We in the media can't report on what we see, but, based on how Roethlisberger just looked, does Foster think he can win this game?
"We'll see," Foster said as he looked to put a wrap on this session. "All the talking I do right now's not going to matter much whenever the game starts."
James Harrison pretty much said the same thing. Markus Wheaton, the man who ironically was identified as this year's Breakout Performer to Watch by Roethlisberger himself at the start of training camp, didn't want to make it an All-Ben-Or-Nothing proposition, either.
"We're just trying to win the game and advance to the next round," said Wheaton, the man most of us believe will be Ben's go-to guy Sunday.
Of course, Wheaton refuted that. After all, he's one wide receiver that couldn't play a Diva role if the owner ordered him to do so.
"It could be a breakout game for anybody," Wheaton said. "For Todman. For Fitz. For Sammie Coates. DHB. Martavis. Anybody. Anybody could be the guy. That's the thing about this group. Any one of them can explode at any time."
What about Ben himself? Would he, could he, comment on anything about his first practice appearance since the last time he met Burfict?
"You'd probably have to ask Mike," Roethlisberger said in the locker room. "I mean, I only threw five passes. This was more about how I recover in the morning, and then we'll take it from there."
And then behind that beard I saw a smile. And then I think he winked at me. Yeah, like the horse that winked at the horseplayer portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss in the all-time classic horse-racing movie, "Let It Ride."
What did Dreyfuss say after that?
"I've got it."
Yeah. I think I've got it.