With the Pittsburgh Steelers having now secure for themselves the AFC North crown, the only major question remaining for them through the end of the regular season is simply how much certain key players might play in what could be a largely meaningless finale.
For the moment, the Steelers are locked into no worse than the third seed, but they cannot reach the first seed any longer, which is, as of this season, the only seed that gets a postseason bye. Thus, they have to decide how important the second seed is.
And they need help to get it. There is no win-and-in scenario to jump up a seed. They need the Buffalo Bills, to whom they lost two weeks ago and who play tonight, to lose at least one of their final two games in order to open that door. If they lose both, the Steelers get the second seed. If they lose one, then Pittsburgh must defeat the 10-5 Cleveland Browns on the road.
And in order to do that, they can’t really afford to send out their practice squad. But how valuable is the possibility of the second seed? Would a Bills loss tonight against the New England Patriots dramatically change their thought process, creating a win-and-in situation?
“We’ll ponder those possibilities in the morning”, head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters during his post-game press conference, which I wrote about yesterday evening. “Tonight, we’re going to wear our hats and t-shirts”, which they were given after securing the division title.
Tomlin’s players weren’t biting, either. When quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was asked about whether or not he would rest for the finale if it were up to him, he declined to answer, instead simply stating that he would be celebrating the win and the division title with his family.
Defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, who has 10 sacks on the season and has, for the first time since his rookie year not missed a game due to injury (he did sit out one game while on the Reserve/Covid-19 List), would not offer up much either. “We are going to prepare like we have a game”, he said. “We’re gonna let the coaches decide what we do”.
There is no clear right are wrong answer. There are obvious incentives and disincentives for either playing everybody or resting some. Some of the players that they might rest are some of the players that really need more work to ‘get right’.
There’s a good chance that Tomlin plays this close to the vest throughout the week. There’s no reason that the Browns should now the Steelers’ plans until 90 minutes before kickoff. Pittsburgh has rested starters and still beaten the Browns in week 17 before, though this is a much better Browns team than in the past.