A near-death experience could not keep Ben Roethlisberger from missing the Pittsburgh Steelers' season opener.
His appendix will.
A sudden ailment leaves the NFL's season opener on Thursday without its biggest star, and forces the Steelers to turn to Charlie Batch in their first meaningful game since winning the Super Bowl as they try to spoil Daunte Culpepper's debut with the Miami Dolphins.
``This is the situation we are being dealt and we are not asking for any pity nor are we going to make any excuses,'' Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said after learning Roethlisberger would miss at least one game after needing an emergency appendectomy Sunday.
While Roethlisberger may return for a Week 2 matchup at Jacksonville, it's somewhat amazing he was even expected to play in this game after being in a serious motorcycle accident on June 12. All known injuries were to his head, including a broken nose and concussion, but it's uncertain if the crash caused any internal damage that could have resulted in appendicitis.
Knee problems forced Roethlisberger to miss four games last season and Batch started two of them, winning both despite completing 22 of 35 passes for 215 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. He hadn't started a game since 2001 with the Detroit Lions.
``Adversity is not what knocks you down, it is how you handle it and how you respond to it,'' Cowher said. ``This football team with its veterans has been down this road before, facing challenges and adversity.''
As would have been the case with Roethlisberger, Culpepper being on the field for this game is taking some by surprise.
The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback, acquired from Minnesota for a second-round pick this offseason, missed the Vikings' final nine games last year after tearing three ligaments in his right knee. Following surgery, Culpepper was told he might miss a year or more.
Instead, he took part in every practice during training camp and played in each of Miami's first three preseason games, going 22-for-30 for 218 yards.
His arrival, and seemingly complete recovery, has Miami fans believing their team can return to the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
``To get hurt and go through all that, it was tough,'' Culpepper said. ``But right now I've got a huge smile because of where I've come from and where I see us going.''
The Dolphins closed last season with six straight wins to finish 9-7 in Nick Saban's first year as coach, making them a popular choice to supplant the New England Patriots as AFC East champions.
While the passing game was stagnant in 2005, the running game was impressive with rookie Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. The only on-field action Williams will see this year is in the CFL because he is serving a one-year suspension for violating the NFL's drug policy, but Miami is comfortable increasing Brown's carries.
The No. 2 overall pick in last year's draft, Brown rushed 207 times for 907 yards with four touchdowns. However, he averaged only 3.2 yards per carry while fumbling three times over the final five games.
``This is a team with the right nucleus, right players and right coaching staff to take it to the championship level,'' new Dolphins defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson said.
Like Brown, Willie Parker could be more of a workhorse this season with the retirement of Jerome Bettis, the NFL's fifth all-time leading rusher, after helping the Steelers win the Super Bowl as their short-yardage and goal-line back.
Despite losing carries to Bettis and some to Duce Staley, Parker still rushed for 1,202 yards last year and set a Super Bowl record with a 75-yard touchdown run.
``You can see it in him - the kid has some confidence now,'' Cowher said after Parker was rewarded with a $13.6 million, four-year contract last week. ``You can see it the way he's running, the way he's catching the ball, the way he's blocking.''
He'll be trying to find holes in a Miami defensive line which features enormous tackles Wilkinson and Keith Traylor, who are both well over 6-feet tall and 330 pounds. That duo is part of an aging, but talented front seven on defense. Traylor is 37 and Wilkinson is 33, defensive end Jason Taylor is 32 and fellow Pro Bowler Zach Thomas (33) enters his 11th season as Miami's middle linebacker.
While Miami tied a team record with 49 sacks last season, it has a revamped secondary which lost veterans Sam Madison and Lance Schulters.
``The way things are, you just don't know who's going to be back next year,'' defensive tackle Vonnie Holliday said. ``So there is a sense of urgency. The time is now, and we're aware of that.''
All but two of Pittsburgh's starters on defense are returning for a unit which led the AFC in total yards allowed. Led by All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu and volatile linebacker Joey Porter, the Steelers gave up 284.0 yards and 16.1 points per game.
``I think we're going to be really good,'' said Brett Keisel, replacing Kimo von Oelhoffen at defensive end, ``as long as we stay healthy.''