PITTSBURGH – Jerricho Cotchery watched Ben Roethlisberger limp into the locker room in the middle of the second quarter on Thursday night against Cleveland, the Pittsburgh quarterback's left foot swollen and his face awash in a painful grimace and figured Roethlisberger was done.
Forgive the veteran wide receiver for his naivete, he's new here.
A half hour after Roethlisberger's night — if not his season — seemed in jeopardy, the two-time Super Bowl winner was getting taped up to go back in.
"I'm like, 'Wow, this is what I've been watching on TV from the other team,'" said Cotchery, who spent seven seasons with the New York Jets before joining the Steelers in August. "It's amazing to see, the guy laying it on the line for his teammates."
Hobbling to the huddle, wincing with each step, Roethlisberger returned to pass for 178 yards in the second half, including a 79-yard touchdown strike to Antonio Brown with 2:52 remaining that sealed a 14-3 victory.
Even for a player who prides himself on playing through pain — Roethlisberger's already fought through a sprained left foot and fractured right thumb this season without missing a meaningful snap — this was a bit much.
His injured foot in a walking boot as he talked to reporters afterward, Roethlisberger said he felt like his ankle was "going to explode." Even if it did, he joked, he'd just ask injured backup quarterback Byron Leftwich for advice on how to get the offensive linemen to carry him downfield as Leftwich famously did during his college days at Marshall.
That wasn't necessary, though Roethlisberger's prognosis remains vague. Though X-rays taken during the game showed his ankle wasn't broken, he underwent an MRI on Friday to get a closer look. The results weren't immediately available, though he remained optimistic he will play when the Steelers (10-3) travel to San Francisco on Dec. 19.
The way Roethlisberger figures it, if he can stand up at all he'll give it a shot. It's what he does.
"People want to hate on him all they want, but the guy is one of the toughest competitors in this game," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "He plays hurt. He's got a broken thumb, who knows what's wrong with his ankle. But we're a very good team with him behind center."
One, however, that showed just how much it relies on Roethlisberger during his brief absence. Backup Charlie Batch failed to complete either of his two pass attempts and took a sack. The team's third quarterback, Dennis Dixon, was placed on the inactive list before the game.
The Steelers know the only real shot they have of getting back to the Super Bowl is with Roethlisberger in the game. Even if injuries force him to get creative on how he does his job.
His handoffs to running back Rashard Mendenhall in the second half were far from textbook. He basically lunged in Mendenhall's direction, hoping Mendenhall would find the ball.
Dropping back to pass was problematic, though Roethlisberger found a way to complete 8 of 12 passes and after getting knocked around in the first half was barely touched in the second as his offensive line played some inspired football to keep their co-captain upright.
"We want to be stout as an offensive line and protect him so he doesn't get in that situation in the first place," left tackle Max Starks said. "But when he does bounce back from those types of injuries it puts a premium on protecting him. We said we weren't going to let anything happen to him."
Nothing did, even though the line played without center Maurkice Pouncey, who left in the first half with a right ankle injury, the same ankle that held him out of the Super Bowl last February.
Pouncey, like Roethlisberger, had an MRI on Friday. Unlike Roethlisberger, Pouncey can't play on one leg though he said after the game he believed he could work through it.
The line certainly needs the Pro Bowler. Pittsburgh could have closed out the Browns early in the fourth quarter but was stuffed on four runs inside the Cleveland 3.
"For us to have four shots down there and not get it done, that's unacceptable," guard/center Doug Legursky said.
The defense didn't escape unscathed. Defensive end Ziggy Hood left early with a groin injury, and there's a chance the team could be without linebacker James Harrison following a helmet-to-helmet hit on Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy late in the fourth quarter.
McCoy was scrambling when he briefly tucked the ball as if to run. Harrison closed in, but McCoy pulled up and flipped a pass to running back Montario Hardesty a split-second before getting drilled by Harrison.
The 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year was flagged for roughing the passer and could face fines and further disciplinary action from the league office.
Harrison defended his actions, saying he believed McCoy was a runner at the time. McCoy left briefly but came back to throw an interception in the end zone, setting up Roethlisberger's game-clinching pass to Brown.
Brown caught the ball near midfield then weaved his way through the Cleveland secondary before scoring. No one was happier with the result than Roethlisberger, and it had little to do with the touchdown.
"I'm proud of him and glad he scored because I wouldn't have been able to make it down there if we had to run another play," Roethlisberger said.
He was kidding. Probably. Odds are if Brown found himself tackled that the Cleveland 1, Roethlisberger would have found a way to get to the huddle, even if his linemen had to go Leftwich on him.
"I wanted to be there for the guys," Roethlisberger said. "I wanted to let them know that I' m going to be there and I'm going to fight no matter what."