By Jim Wexell
When the season started, the Steelers' odds to win the Super Bowl were 22-1 because their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, had been suspended for the first four games.
But the Steelers survived the suspension with a 3-1 start, stayed relatively healthy, picked up steam in the second half and are now on the verge of clinching the division and a bye. They need a win Sunday over the Browns to clinch the AFC's No. 2 seed.
Even if they lose Sunday, the Steelers will enter the playoffs as a wild card with a chance to ride what fans are calling the "Stairway to Seven."
Of course, there are obstacles. Here are five:
1. Peyton Hillis — Only one time in franchise history have the tradition-rich Steelers allowed less than 3.0 yards per carry over the course of a season, and that was in 1943 when they combined with the Philadelphia Eagles to become the "Steagles." This team is allowing 3.04 per carry and a franchise-low 64.1 yards rushing per game. They need to do it one more time Sunday in Cleveland against Hillis, the Browns' powerful tailback.
2. Troy Polamalu — His availability for the regular-season finale hadn't been determined as of this writing, but the Steelers will need their star safety healthy in the playoffs. Before aggravating an ankle injury during an interception return for a touchdown against the Bengals, Polamalu was riding a streak of four consecutive game-changing plays, which coincided with the team's longest win streak this season.
3. Emmanuel Sanders — In a preseason preview on these pages, this rookie's development as the No. 3 WR was mentioned as a must if the Steelers were to ably replace Santonio Holmes. Well, Sanders' last two games have been his most productive with 132 yards on 11 catches. He has gained the trust of Roethlisberger at the right time, but, again, he's a rookie.
4. Jonathan Scott — The player most responsible for the loss to the Jets, the Steelers' left tackle was abruptly yanked from the next game for committing the same sin that allowed the Jets their safety. Scott returned to the lineup, but Max Starks' midseason injury replacement has yet to instill confidence as the key protector on Big Ben's blind side.
5. Tom Brady — The Patriots are killing everyone, but Brady in particular owns the Steelers and their cover-3 scheme with its big coverage cushions. Since he picked them apart in Week 10, the Steelers have played more press-man coverage — which will be a must when they face him next.
Jim Wexell is the publisher of SteelCityInsider.net.