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Week 17 Recap: Best Laid Plans

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Well, that didn’t go according to plan.

On paper, this had the potential to be one of the craziest final weekends in NFL history. No fewer than a half dozen teams had a realistic shot at a playoff berth. All they had to do was win and hope things fell their way. Naturally, almost every single one of those teams lost.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were one of the few that took care of business. Playing their starters the entire game, they battled the Cleveland Browns to a hard fought 13-9 victory. Unfortunately, the gambit didn’t pay off when the Cincinnati Bengals didn’t hold up their end of the bargain, losing to the Baltimore Ravens 24-16. THE RATBIRDS ONLY HAVE ONE GOOD OFFENSIVE PLAYER AND YOU LET HIM RUN FOR 200 YARDS?!?! Thanks to the Jets, Broncos and Raiders also losing, the Bungles were still rewarded for their incompetence by backdooring into the final Wild Card spot.

If the Steelers fail to make noise in this year’s playoffs, this game is going to be the lightning rod for Steeler Nation’s displeasure. By playing his starters the entire game, Mike Tomlin deprived several injured stars, particularly Ben Roethlisberger, of much needed rest. In addition, the team suffered several fresh injuries, most notably to running back Rashard Mendenhall. The preliminary diagnoses is a torn ACL, which would not only end his season but is usually a career-altering injury for a running back. Regardless, Mendy isn’t going to be playing next week.

I can’t defend Tomlin’s lunacy. I still have no problem with him starting Big Ben and making a run at a first round bye. However, after halftime, when it was clear the Cincy game wasn’t going the Steelers’ way, he should have emptied out the bench and rested his key personnel. It’s like he learned absolutely nothing from last year when Troy Polamalu wrecked his knee returning a garbage time interception and was basically a non-factor in the playoffs.

Not that I believe that losing Mendy is the huge playoff-changing injury that some in the media are making it out to be. The guy was an almost insignificant part of our offense all season. When the Steelers won it all back in Super Bowl XLIII, they did so with a mediocre rushing attack featuring Fast Medium-Speed Willie Parker. Stiller Football is dead and only a high-powered passing offense is going to get it done in today’s NFL.

Unfortunately, that is the area I’m actually concerned about. Big Ben finished 23/40 for 221 yards, eclipsing the 4,000 yard mark for the second time in his career. He didn’t throw for a touchdown, though, leaving him with only one passing TD since his ankle got rolled up a few weeks back. Mike Wallace seems to be going in reverse, catching only a single ball for 11 yards. Antonio Brown continues to be an emerging superstar, becoming the only player in the NFL this season to pile up 1,000 yards in both receiving and returns, but he can’t do it alone. The Steelers continue to sputter offensively, particularly in the red zone, and that is going to spell doom when they face a team that can put up points.

The Steelers ran the ball fairly well yesterday, even after Mendy collapsed in a heap without being touched on the final play of the first quarter. They crossed mid-field twice early on, only for both drives to end with Big Ben getting sacked when Bruce Arians dialed up inexplicable pass plays on third and short. Marcus Gilbert had such a terrible game, I’m hoping he misses another meeting this week so maybe Tomlin will give Jonathan Scott a look at RT. Former Pitt standout Jabaal Sheard tossed Gilbert around like a drunk through a window in Oakland. One smart thing O-line coach Sean Kugler did do was rotate Chris Kemoeatu and Trai Essex at LG. The clueless commentators didn’t get it (Seriously, Solomon Wilcots didn’t make a single salient observation all afternoon) but it was clear the Steelers wanted Kemo in on pulling plays (which he admittedly is good at) with Essex in for pass protection.

The Browns managed only a couple Phil Dawson field goals in the first half. The first was set up by Seneca Wallace scrambling for 26 yards. The second came after two long pass plays to Josh Cribbs, who did his best to make the Steelers his Eleven Little Indians again, and Tomlin’s boneheaded decision not to push the Browns back on a third down penalty. The Steelers normally staunch secondary faltered a bit after excellent rookie Cortez Allen was injured on special teams. With Keenan Lewis also hobbled, they were stuck either playing base defense or inserting Bryant “Ten Yard Cushion” McFadden into the line-up. The Steelers answered with a field goal of their own to close out the half, thanks to an electric 40 yard bomb to AB.

The Steelers came out on fire in the second half. Ben seemed to loosen up a bit (probably thanks to some “medicine” as Steve Young likes to say), leading the team on two consecutive scoring drives on their first two possessions. The first fizzled out at the Cleveland 11, resulting in a field goal. Troy picked off Wallace and Redzone Redman (19 carries for 92 yards) punched it home on a nice tough 7 yard run. To their credit, the Browns wouldn’t roll over, answering with a 21 yard pass play to Cribbs and another long scramble from Wallace. Ryan Clark, who had a helluva game, snuffed out the drive with a sack, holding them to yet another field goal.

In the fourth, the Steelers tried putting the ball in Redzone’s hands, hoping to grind out a victory. It would’ve worked except for one pesky little detail; Redman kept fumbling. He put the ball on the ground on two straight drives. Not a great way to make your case for starting, Ike. Tomlin had finally seen enough and charged rookie practice squad fodder John Clay to bring the game home. Fumblitis aside (remember, the Bus was known as a fumbler early in his career, too), I’m comfortable with Redman as the featured back going forward although it would be great to get Mewelde Moore back next week as a little insurance.

Also in the fourth, Hines Ward finally made his 1,000 career reception, making him only the eighth player in NFL history to achieve that milestone. It was on a little shovel pass that ended up losing three yards for about the most anti-climatic record-setter since Bret Favre laid down for Michael Strahan. I’m glad that’s over. After spending three quarters force-feeding him, Hines completely disappeared from the line-up in favor of Jerricho Cotchery and Manny Sanders. Taking nothing away from Hines, who is a class act and one of my favorite Steelers of all-time, but we’re in a playoff hunt and I’d rather be playing guys who can actually get open and catch the ball.

Anyway, thanks to Redman’s late Christmas presents, the Browns hung in the game until the very end. A frantic two minute drill fell just short as the Steeler D, playing all their (healthy) starters to the bitter end, held on to preserve the victory. It was ultimately meaningless as the Ratbirds were putting the finishing touches on a win of their own, thereby locking up the second seed and first round bye. The Steelers, meanwhile, will be traveling out to the Mile High City to face the Denver Broncos. There will be plenty of time for analysis in the days ahead but this is not the gimme some members of Steeler Nation are seeing it as. The Black and Gold will limp into Denver minus several key players and with several more playing at nowhere near 100%. Anything can happen in the NFL playoffs, let’s hope it doesn’t happen to the Steelers next week.