KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Ben Roethlisberger doesn't remember a whole lot about the last time the Pittsburgh Steelers played the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Steelers' quarterback sustained a concussion when his head banged into the knee of Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson as he leaned headfirst during a running play in overtime. He came back to play some of his best games of the 2009 season afterward, twice throwing for three touchdowns without an interception and leading Pittsburgh to a second-place finish in the AFC East.
It certainly wasn't the first time Big Ben was banged up.
There have been numerous concussions, several knee injuries, and a fractured thumb sustained a few weeks ago against Cincinnati. Roethlisberger plans to play tonight against Kansas City, even though he admitted it'll be painful, and that's dreadful news to the Chiefs.
The truth is that Roethlisberger seems to play better when he's ailing.
"He's an extremely intense competitor," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, "and I think adversity such as that brings that out of him. I think it's a characteristic that all good competitors have."
Pittsburgh had last week off, giving Roethlisberger time to heal. But the thumb still bothered him in practice this week, and he didn't take snaps under center early in the week, working out of the shotgun with a splint under his glove to protect it.
It's unclear how Pittsburgh might alter its playbook in light of the injury, though it won't be the first time there have been subtle tweaks. The team worked out of the shotgun and pistol last year against Baltimore to take some of the pressure off Roethlisberger's sprained foot.
"I'll be out there, I guarantee that," Roethlisberger said. "It won't be an issue that way. Will it be an issue with pain and throwing? I don't know."
Roethlisberger said he doesn't plan to take an injection to numb the pain. Instead, he'll simply play right through it, something he's done with tremendous success at other times in his career.
"For me the reason I want to play is for my guys," he said. "When you're dinged up a little bit, you have to play a little better, concentrate a little bit more."
It would take a lot more than a banged up thumb to keep Roethlisberger out this week. The Steelers (7-3) are a half-game behind Baltimore (8-3) in the tough AFC North, with Cincinnati just a game back, heading into this week's games. They have a good opportunity to pick up a win on the road against the Chiefs (4-6), who have lost three straight and been ravaged by injuries all season.
The latest occurred two weeks ago, when quarterback Matt Cassel hurt his throwing hand late in a loss to Denver. Any hope that he'd be able to return this season vanished the very next day when he had season-ending surgery, turning the reins of an offense already missing tight end Tony Moeaki and All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles to a journeyman quarterback in Tyler Palko.
Palko appeared comfortable despite throwing three interceptions in a 34-3 loss last week at New England, which earned him another start Sunday. After that is anyone's guess.
The Chiefs picked up Kyle Orton off waivers from the Broncos on Wednesday, but he couldn't make it to Kansas City until Friday. That meant there was virtually no chance he could get up to speed in time to play against the Steelers. With a tough stretch coming up, though, the Chiefs were willing to pay the roughly $2.6 million Orton is still owed to potentially play in just five games.
"We have consistently communicated that we are always looking to create competition and depth within our team," Chiefs coach Todd Haley said. "We feel adding Kyle to our roster reinforces that goal and we look forward to having him as a member of the Chiefs."
For as long as it may be. Orton is a free agent after this season.
In the meantime, Palko is preparing to make the second start of his professional career against a team that has made a habit of competing for Super Bowls. The son of a high school coach in western Pennsylvania said he's undaunted by the challenge, especially after making his debut in a high-profile game on Monday night at New England a week ago.
"I was surprisingly calm throughout the whole game," Palko said.
Playing the Steelers is especially meaningful for Palko because he grew up watching the Steelers, and even played at Heinz Field while he was leading the University of Pittsburgh.
The fact Kansas City could turn around its season with a victory - the Chiefs are two games behind AFC West-leading Oakland - only adds to the pressure. Another loss with a tough stretch looming would almost certainly eliminate Haley's crew from playoff contention.
"I'm fired up," Palko said. "It was fun growing up in Pittsburgh, seeing the Steelers, the black and gold, understanding the tradition. It's exciting and I'm looking forward to it."