- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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Before reading any further, let's make sure we're clear on this point: The Ravens and Steelers are better teams when Ray Lewis is in the middle of Baltimore's defense and Ben Roethlisberger is quarterbacking Pittsburgh.
But the Ravens and Steelers have a better chance at making serious playoff runs if their star players are healthy.
That's why Lewis and Roethlisberger need to take a seat for the next two weeks. It's obvious that Lewis is still bothered by a toe injury and Roethlisberger is limited by a high-ankle sprain. Until the playoffs start, Lewis needs to go back to being a coach on the sideline (where TV cameras can get the usual 100 shots of him) and Roethlisberger needs to be propping that leg up on a couch in a luxury box.
This isn't to diminish the significance of the final two weeks of the regular season. Although the Ravens and Steelers secured playoff spots last weekend, there is still a lot riding on the remaining games. Another loss by the Ravens (10-4) or Steelers (10-4) could cost them the AFC North title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
This is why it's not an easy decision to rest Lewis and Roethlisberger. It is, however, the smart one. Getting home field in the playoffs is a major advantage. The Ravens and Steelers are a combined 13-1 at home this season. But they have to look at the big picture. Is it really an advantage to be playing at Heinz Field if Roethlisberger can't hit WR Mike Wallace 15 yards downfield? How many would prefer seeing a healthy Roethlisberger playing a postseason game in Denver?
While keeping Lewis and Roethlisberger on the sideline is the best decision, there are no guarantees that it would work. There's a chance that Lewis still will feel pain in his toe after two weeks and Roethlisberger still won't be able to plant that left leg by the time the postseason begins. But this is a chance that both teams need to take.
Pittsburgh could be contemplating that decision right now. On Tuesday, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin wouldn't commit to Roethlisberger as his starting quarterback Saturday against the Rams.
Asked Monday night if this is an injury that would improve with rest, Roethlisberger said, "I don't know. I'm not a doctor. I'm sure any injury gets better when you rest."
What is certain is that the injuries won't improve by allowing Roethlisberger and Lewis to continue to play. Roethlisberger couldn't follow through on his throws because of the ankle injury, which was the main reason why he was 4-of-14 on passes beyond 15 yards. There were times when he appeared to hop to escape pressure in the pocket.
It was just as painful to watch Lewis play a notch below his usual level in his first game back since Nov. 13. He missed a tackle on San Diego's Mike Tolbert in the second half and struggled in pass coverage, which hasn't been a strength of his for a couple of seasons.
This isn't to put all of the blame for the West Coast losses on these players. Pittsburgh wouldn't have scored a touchdown against the 49ers with Charlie Batch at quarterback, and Baltimore would have gotten lit up by the Chargers if Dannell Ellerbe had been playing inside linebacker.
This just shows that Lewis and Roethlisberger are hurting. They're hurting their teams, and themselves even more. Roethlisberger walked around the locker room after the 49ers loss with what looked like a pound of ice wrapped around his ankle. Lewis spoke to reporters after the Chargers loss with his right foot in a small garbage can filled with ice.
Of course, neither would acknowledge the extent of his injury. "For me personally, I think I came out really healthy, and I’m very excited," Lewis said.
Asked to put a percentage on the health of the toe, Lewis said, “I’m definitely 95 to 100 percent, and I’m not even worried about it.”
The same goes for Roethlisberger, who was asked how his ankle felt compared to the Thursday night game against the Browns. "It hurts," he said. "We'll leave it at that."
The hard part might not be the decision itself. It could be following through with the decision. Neither Roethlisberger nor Lewis wants to sit out games. They're leaders. They don't want to let their teammates down. The Steelers couldn't pull Roethlisberger late in the fourth quarter Monday night even when it was apparent they had lost the game. The Ravens haven't been able to get Lewis off the field on passing situations for the past couple of seasons.
What the teams have to sell these players on is the playoff picture. There is a scenario in which the Steelers could get caught up in an offensive shootout with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. The only way Pittsburgh wins that one is with a healthy Roethlisberger. There is a scenario where the Ravens have to shut down top-notch running games from Houston or Denver. Baltimore's best chance at success is with a healthy Lewis.
Roethlisberger and Lewis will want to suit up because each plays with his heart. But for the next two weeks, it's about being smart.