Time again for turkey on holiday dinner tables across this great country, but all I keep hearing about is ribs: Ben Roethlisberger's rib, Byron Leftwich's rib, Jerricho Cotchery's ribs.
The judges haven't completed their full inspection, but, to this point, there's a congealing consensus that Ribfest 2012 hasn't been terribly appetizing.
You almost wonder if defenses are so conscious of hitting the Steelers in the head and drawing flags, fines, suspensions, and even the occasionally successful appeal that they're begun crashing into rib cages in record numbers instead. Almost.
The more tangible question for the moment is how anxious the Cleveland Browns are for a shot at Charlie Batch's ribs, as the Steelers are down to the Homestead Rifle at quarterback this week, to be followed by someone named Brian Hoyer, and then, if I have the Constitutional line of succession correct, the Speaker of the House.
"Guys in this locker room have stood up to these kinds of challenges for a long time," Batch was saying Wednesday on his way to practice. "It's exciting to get a chance to step in and run this offense."
I was expecting something more along the lines of petrifying.
Have you seen the way quarterbacks have been leaving the stage around here? Roethlisberger described a series of essentially sleepless nights amid a pain factor of nine on a scale of 10. Leftwich, the aggrieved understudy, looked to be experiencing a solid eight.
But that's not the half of it.
This is an offense that's managed exactly two touchdowns in two weeks in two home games against two dubious defenses. Even with Ben healthy for most of the night against Kansas City Nov. 12, the only touchdown came on a nearly impossible catch by Mike Wallace. Last week, the only touchdown was a 31-yard run by Leftwich, an outcome unlikely to occur again.
The freshest statistical and visual evidence would indicate this is a vehicle with its flashers on, smoking from both ends, and rolling to the shoulder. But which came first on the recent track of incompetence, the chicken or the rib?
"This game," said veteran tackle Max Starks, "is a very true game, meaning you need contributions for all 11 people on the field at one time. You have to all be on the same page, and last week we weren't quite on the same page. Now Kansas City's defense doesn't get enough credit. I know they've been beaten, but they've got a lot of talent on that defense. And Baltimore is Baltimore; it's always just a race to 20 points and a three-point game.
"Basically, the last two times out, we haven't played our best along the offensive line. I'd say that's been the difference."
Yes, it would appear that decent protection for the quarterback and an abundance of running lanes for whoever happened to be the healthy running back are products of this offense line that are suddenly harder to come by than Twinkies and Suzy-Q's.
That's right, a real emergency.
"Cleveland's defense is comparable and probably better than Baltimore's," said Starks. "They've got Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin, Frostee Rucker, and Jabaal Sheard up front, so that's a real good start. They had seven sacks on the road against Dallas, so that's a real challenge for us. It's a four-down [linemen] defense, but the subpackages are similar to Baltimore, similar to Dallas, similar to Cincinnati. They'll be looking at what other teams did against us and they'll try to take advantage of that."
Any sense that the Steelers aren't absolutely desperate to flesh out an offense with its ribs exposed went away this week with the signing of Plaxico Burress, who had spent the entire season unemployed but is expected to give Todd Haley's offense a new red-zone option. You'll know Plax is on the field Sunday in Cleveland when the entire stadium yells, "Watch the fade!"
There's perhaps no better allegory for the margin for error at this point than the prospect of getting a pass from the third-string quarterback into the hands of a rusty 6-foot-5 wideout in the corner of an end zone when everyone knows what's coming.
Plax might be big, but that window is small, like one of those opera windows in the back seat of the old Lincoln Continentals. A loss in Ohio could be a defining event, even if not everyone agrees.
"Not really," Wallace said when asked Wednesday if the Steelers' backs were to the wall. "We're still in decent shape. We're just one game behind where we were last week."
Yes, one game, one more quarterback, one more wideout, and soon enough you find yourself at one minute to zero.
Tomlin loves to remind you that the standard is the standard, but that's not the same as saying the standard is always met.
The standard is a couple of victories per season at the expense of the Browns. It's a low bar. Trip over that one, and it's a sorry climax to Ribfest.
Gene Collier: email@example.com.