Tim Benz: Steelers' Mike Tomlin just cares about who, not where
Once the smoke cleared, it ended up like so many of us thought it would.
Wait. That wasn't smoke. That was everyone's breath on the sideline during an 11-degree day.
But as anticipated, the Browns eventually became the Browns, even against the Steelers backups. So the Steelers won 28-24 on Sunday.
Simultaneously, the Jets were very much the Jets against many New England starters. So the Patriots won 26-6.
As a result, just as many of us presumed in August, the Steelers emerged from the regular season as the second-best AFC team after the Patriots.
Yes, despite a 13-3 record, the Steelers enter the postseason as runner-up to New England's 13-3 by virtue of that ungodly NFL-rules-rip-off of a loss two weeks ago ...
Oh, sorry. Was that out loud?
... By virtue of that unfortunate defeat at the hands of the Patriots.
In the end, the Patriots are the top seed in the AFC. The Steelers are the second seed. If we eventually do see a rematch of that Week 15 clash, the Black and Gold will have to go to Foxborough.
“No matter where we are, we've got to get the job done,” the Steelers' Tyson Alualu said after his team-leading eight tackles and two sacks in a spot starter's role Sunday.
“Sure, we'd love to play in front of our fans. But we travel well. So we can't complain about that.”
Avoiding a potential slog to Massachusetts is why the Week 15 matchup was built up so much. Going into that game, many believed the Steelers finally would have a chance to beat New England in the playoffs if the game was at Heinz Field. Going to Foxborough would be a death sentence, though.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn't approach Sunday's last Hail Mary scenario of avoiding that trip in such a do-or-die manner.
By scratching the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Cameron Heyward, David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey, it became clear Tomlin was prioritizing long-term health throughout the postseason as opposed to desperately chasing the slight odds of gaining potential home-field advantage against the Pats via a miracle win by the Jets along with his reserves losing to the 0-15 — now 0-16 — Browns.
Was Tomlin simply avoiding throwing money down on that long shot?
“I like the position that we had,” Tomlin said after beating Cleveland. “I wanted to assure some of those guys got to the second round of the playoffs. I felt completely confident in the guys that we had in there to do the job.
“It really wasn't a tough decision.”
Well, it must've been a little tough. After all, I could have understood any fleeting attempt to avoid a trip to New England where — all together now — the Steelers never have beaten Tom Brady.
But the tone in the Steelers locker room Sunday suggested the Steelers staying with New England all the way up to the Jesse James overturned touchdown earned the confidence of their coach.
The inference from players was that health going into a potential AFC championship rematch with Brady and Co. is more important than the venue. The inference from players was their coaching staff saw enough Dec. 17 to believe this edition of the Steelers could win in Foxborough against Brady even if all the others had failed.
“I would think so. I would hope so,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “I think our coaches, our staff, everybody believes in our team. (They) believe anywhere we go and play, we can go and get it.
“Just make sure all our guys get to the dance. I (understand) what coach was doing.”
Is that opinion right? Is a fully healthy version of this team put together solidly enough to upset New England on the road?
Right now, my response is no. I'll have to see that before I believe it.
However, they are better built to do so than last year's team and any other that has attempted and failed in the past.
Regardless of our opinions, far more important is what the players can talk themselves into thinking.
That seemed to be at the root of Tomlin's message in how he approached his lineup Sunday.
It doesn't matter where. It only matters who.
Tomlin seems to like who he has regardless of where they play.
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.