- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Ben Roethlisberger’s vision has cleared. The playoff hopes for his team, however, are far murkier.

The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback understands whatever wiggle room the Steelers had vanished in a maddening loss in Seattle last weekend, when he threw for 456 yards before leaving in the fourth quarter with a concussion. Roethlisberger’s symptoms abated quickly though not before continuing a trend. Heading into the first weekend of December, Roethlisberger has started and finished just three of Pittsburgh’s 11 games.

The Steelers (6-5) have somehow remained in the thick a muddled postseason race, though how much longer they can stick around could depend on if they can handle the resilient Colts (6-5) on Sunday night. Pittsburgh is just 3-4 against AFC opponents this season with playoff locks Cincinnati and Denver still on the schedule. A loss to Indianapolis and Pittsburgh could have to win out to play deep into January, a rugged prospect for a group that’s looked equal parts explosive and erratic for much of the fall.

“We realize the significance of this opportunity this weekend,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

So do the Colts, who are tied with Houston for the lead in the AFC North even with star quarterback Andrew Luck limited to seven games because of various injuries. Enter Matt Hasselbeck, who is unbeaten (4-0) while filling in. Heady territory for a 40-year-old nearly a decade removed from his prime.

“I think probably people would have thought it unlikely, myself included,” Hasselbeck said. “I have to work hard and prove I’m still able to do things and play well, play a young man’s game. I’ve worked hard at those things.”

Namely avoiding mistakes and big hits. Hasselbeck’s quarterback rating (94.4) is nearly 20 points better than Luck thanks to the understanding that there’s no need to be the hero. Hasselbeck gets rid of the ball quickly rather than hang onto it in hopes of making a play and risk getting drilled. Those days are long gone.

“I backed up Brett Favre in Green Bay and we were running the same offense, but he was running it differently,” Hasselbeck said. “He just had a laser of an arm and he was stiff arming guys. I’m probably a little more by the book.”

One that could provide a compelling new chapter if Hasselbeck can become the first 40-something ever to win five consecutive starts, something Favre didn’t even manage in the twilight of his career.

“I don’t think there’s anything Matt hasn’t seen from a defensive perspective and standpoint,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “You see something new week in and week out from your opponent, he’s able to sniff some things out, figure things out and get us in the right play and protection.”

Other things to look for in a matchup whose ripple effects could be felt for weeks to come.

AIR RAID: Pittsburgh’s secondary justified its penchant for giving up massive chunks of yardage by pointing out it was also forcing plenty of turnovers. Not so much anymore. Russell Wilson lit up the Steelers for five touchdowns without an interception last weekend. Tomlin is experimenting with changes, including giving CB Brandon Boykin a shot even though Boykin spent much of the first three months of the season buried on the depth chart.

PRIMARY CONCERN: A year ago, Roethlisberger threw for 522 yards and six touchdowns in a 51-34 blowout. A healthy Roethlisberger could do it again. CB Vontae Davis has played well but not as well as he was last season. CB Greg Toler has been prone to giving up big plays, and Pro Bowl S Mike Adams has missed the past two games with an injured left ankle. The combination has Indy ranked No. 27 in the league against the pass — a potentially huge problem against the Steelers.

LINEBACKER SHUFFLE: The Steelers began the year stressing the need for rotating linebackers in and out of the game to keep them fresh. The experiment may be tweaked this week thanks to the steady play of first-round pick Bud Dupree, whose four sacks are tied for the most by a rookie.

“We want to increase the number of opportunities he gets,” Tomlin said. “The game circumstance didn’t necessarily air that out, in terms of number of snaps. We put him on the field first and we’ll continue to do that.”

ROAD WOES: Pittsburgh has dominated this series, going 20-6 all-time (playoffs included). The Colts have won just one game in Pittsburgh since 1969, beating the Steelers 24-20 in 2008. Hasselbeck might have trouble turning that around, too. Hasselbeck is 0-2 in his career at Pittsburgh and 0-3 if you count the Super Bowl he lost in February 2006 — as the road team.

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AP Sports Writer Mike Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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