The Steelers could still force the road to Minnesota through Heinz Field. But they nevertheless will be resting multiple key starters for the Week 17 rematch with the Browns.
By not using his best players, coach Mike Tomlin essentially is conceding the No. 1 seed to the Patriots. Sure, the Steelers may still win. But the move cries out that winning isn’t the priority today; giving guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Le'Veon Bell a break is.
While it’s probably a safe bet that the Patriots won’t lose to the Jets, Tomlin is still taking a calculated risk by assuming that New England will clinch the top seed with a victory. Tomlin also is taking a calculated risk that a three-week break in game action will actually help his best players.
Regardless of which team the Steelers host in the divisional round (Jaguars, Ravens, Chargers, etc.), the opponent will have just won a playoff game. They won’t be trying to kick-start the engine. The motor already will be purring. The Steelers, in contrast, could be rusty. They could find themselves stumbling through the first quarter or two. They could end up being one and done.
The other side of the coin, of course, is the risk of injury against a Browns team that has nothing to lose, except of course its 16th game. If Roethlisberger, Bell, or any other key player who won’t play today would have played and gotten injured, Tomlin never would have heard the end of it.
Still, it’s one thing to rest starters when there’s truly nothing to play for. Who could criticize Tomlin for still reaching for the No. 1 seed until it was officially out of reach? At a minimum, Tomlin should have put his best guys on the field, at least initially. If/when the Patriots build a huge lead, then pull the starters off the gridiron.
If, in the end, the Steelers blow a shot at the No. 1 seed and/or experience rustiness two weeks from now in the divisional round, remember Tomlin’s decision. It’s an outside-the-box move that possibly was a product of trying to outsmart the Patriots — and as a result he possibly has outsmarted himself.