Mike Tomlin’s Week 17 debate: Rest key Steelers for NFL playoffs or build on momentum of Colts comeback

In the aftermath of the greatest comeback victory in Mike Tomlin’s 14 seasons as an NFL head coach, which delivered his seventh AFC North championship, he was asked what approach he would take relative to his starters when the Steelers close their regular season in a game Sunday at Cleveland.

“We’ll ponder those possibilities in the morning,” he told reporters. “Tonight, we’re going to wear our hats and T-shirts.”

This is the prize for winning a division title, that and a guaranteed position among the first four seeds in the AFC portion of the NFL playoffs. There is only one bye available to the qualifying teams, though, and the Chiefs secured that Sunday afternoon, when they squeezed past the Falcons. The Steelers will be either the No. 2 seed in the playoffs or No. 3.

So is there a legitimate reason for the Steelers to play full-strength against the Browns?

One could engage in a vigorous internal debate about that, as Tomlin very well might:

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PRO: Securing the No. 2 seed does assure the possibility of a second playoff game at home. In a typical year, the primary benefit of playing as often as possible at home would be obvious: a disruptive crowd of more than 68,000 working to intimidate the opposition into a substandard performance. It doesn’t always work, but it never hurts.

Now Heinz Field is empty save for a few family members here and there. But the Steelers still know how to play the wind in that stadium better than anyone who enters. It’s their locker room, a short drive from home, no need for a plane – all of that. The Steelers finished 7-1 at home this season, even though they only had small crowds for three of those games. It has to matter some.

CON: Sure, but the team also is 5-2 away from Heinz. Its most significant victories to date – against the Titans and Ravens – were secured on the road. And the Steelers are going to need some help relative to the Bills even to have a chance of getting the No. 2 spot.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to get some rest for a team whose quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, is 38 years old? The Steelers have four starters on each side of the ball who are over 30, including two members each of the offensive and defensive lines.

The Steelers never had a true bye week. They were scheduled to play the Titans on Oct. 4, but that game was postponed because of COVID issues relative to the Tennessee franchise. It was shipped into the middle of the season, consuming the break that had been built in for Week 8. The postponement didn’t occur until three days before the Titans game, which meant they’d put in a fair amount of work for a game that didn’t arrive for a month.

Then COVID issues with the Ravens postponed their planned Thanksgiving game for six days, which meant even the break the Steelers expected after a short prep for the Baltimore game was devoured. The Steelers wound up playing three games in 11 days and now have played five in 23 days. It’s hard to imagine a team needing rest more than this bunch, especially with the elimination of a second playoff bye in each conference meaning the path to the Super Bowl includes three more games.

PRO: Rest would be nice. Football is a brutal game. But the Steelers played so poorly following their 11-0 start, losing three in a row and failing to crack the 20-point mark each time, and at last they discovered something positive in recovering from a 24-7 deficit against the Colts.

The Browns game presents an opportunity to build on the success of the intermediate passing game, which led to an unexpected offensive resurgence that included three touchdown passes from Roethlisberger and more than 240 passing yards in the second half. The defense, as well, bounced back from a dreadful first half to hold the Colts to a single field goal after halftime.

Can the Steelers afford to expect that playing 30 minutes of outstanding football over the course of the season’s stretch drive has prepared them to excel in the playoffs? Playing the starters for at least a half should help sharpen them for what they’ll face in what Tomlin likes to call “January football.”

CON: The Steelers completely reversed the momentum of the Colts game, and their season, in the 12 minutes comprising halftime. Why should anyone believe it can be sustained from week to week? It’s more important to gain necessary rest for the long-term veterans and such players as wideout Diontae Johnson, who was bothered by an ankle issue late in the Colts game, and defensive superstar T.J. Watt, who developed some sort of leg issue but continued to play.

It’s also essential for a team that has lost three of its top five linebackers to avoid further injury. Long-term Steelers fans might remember when the Steelers used Roethlisberger in a meaningless game against Cleveland at the end of the 2008 season. They were assured a bye and a No. 2 seed, but Tomlin didn’t want his key players sitting for two weekends straight and planned to use most for roughly a half. Roethlisberger got hit simultaneously by two defenders while releasing a pass and was down on the field with a concussion for 15 minutes.

Who wants to relive that scene?

There is no easy answer to this conundrum. There is only the answer that seems obvious to the person selecting it. The person paid to do that job will have to decide for himself the best course in the Steelers’ current circumstance.

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