Like kids on Christmas morning, the Steelers' players gleefully grabbed their AFC North division champion hats and T-shirts after rallying from 17 points down to beat the Colts on on Sunday. The win not only erased the stench of a three-game losing streak, it also meant that their Week 17 game against the Browns (who lost to the Jets on Sunday) is meaningless as far as Pittsburgh's division standing is concerned.
Given their current lame duck status, questions regarding who will and won't play on Sunday were quickly posed to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin following Pittsburgh's win over Indianapolis (oddsmakers clearly expect the Steelers to rest some starters, as the Browns are 7-point favorites at William Hill Sportsbook). Tomlin said that he wouldn't begin thinking about the Browns until Monday. Tomlin may offer an answer during Tuesday's press conference, or he could decide to keep the Browns guessing until kickoff. Rest assured that the Browns -- who need a win over Pittsburgh to clinch a playoff berth -- will be keeping close tabs on Tomlin's presser.
While the reasons for resting some of his starters are obvious, here are three reasons why Tomlin should consider playing his usual lineup on Sunday.
1. The Steelers need to stay sharp
After a month of uninspired football, the Steelers finally awoke from their winter slumber during the second half of Sunday's game. Pittsburgh's offense, which was a shell of itself during the three-game losing streak, found its rhythm again after Ben Roethlisberger employed an up-tempo attack. Roethlisberger, along with getting a slew of different teammates involved in the passing game, had success on his deep passes for the first time in months. His touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson covered 39 yards, while JuJu Smith-Schuster's 25-yard touchdown pass gave Pittsburgh the lead for good.
Defensively, the Steelers were almost as fast as the offense, as linebackers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, along with Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, put constant pressure on Philip Rivers. The Steelers' defense also stifled the Colts' previously effective running game.
Another game before the playoffs would be beneficial for both sides of the ball. Pittsburgh's offense needs to build off its second half momentum. It also needs to continue to iron out issues running the football, as Pittsburgh is currently 32nd in the league in rushing. Defensively, the Steelers could use another dominant performance against a team that is among the league's best at running it.
While some teams have won the Super Bowl after resting starters in their regular season finale, that philosophy has far more often resulted in playoff disappointment. Just asked the 2019 Ravens, who came out flat and never recovered during last year's divisional round exit at the hands of the Titans. Steelers fans can harken back to the 2017 team, who sleepwalked through the first half of a 45-42 loss to the Jaguars in the divisional round. The 2004 Steelers, who rested a slew of players against the Bills in Week 17, played flat in their divisional round win over the Jets before falling apart against New England in the AFC title game. Conversely, the 2005, 2008 and 2010 Steelers played their starters in Week 17. All three teams went onto represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
2. Send Cleveland home
The Steelers-Browns rivalry has definitely lost some steam over the past several decades, but there is still plenty of bad blood between the longtime rivals, especially following last year's altercation between Myles Garrett and Mason Rudolph. And while they won't say it publicly, rest assured that the Steelers' players would love to extend Cleveland's 18-year playoff drought by handing them a Week 17 loss.
Laying down against a possible future playoff opponent has cost the Steelers before. Against the Chargers in the 1994 regular season finale, the Steelers' decision to take out several key starters during the game contributed to San Diego's 37-34 comeback victory. Three weeks later, the Chargers, who earned a playoff bye by virtue of their win over Pittsburgh, pulled off a shocking upset win over the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. And while that loss is considered the most painful in franchise history, a loss to the Browns in this year's playoffs probably wouldn't feel too good, either.
The Browns possess one of the league's toughest pass rushers in Garrett, arguably the league's top running back duo in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and a young, brash quarterback who has beaten Pittsburgh before in Baker Mayfield. Instead of taking your chances with them in the playoffs, the Steelers would be better off eliminating this particular threat in Week 17. A Week 17 win would also add another layer to the Steelers' dominance over the Browns over the past four decades.
The thought of laying down against a rival was unacceptable to John Madden, the Raiders Hall of Fame coach who faced an interesting conundrum heading into the second to last week of the 1976 regular season. While a win over the visiting Bengals would eliminate Cincinnati from postseason contention, it would give the Steelers -- the team that had defeated the Raiders in the previous two AFC title games -- a playoff berth. Instead of resting his starters and officially ending the Steelers' reign as world champ, Madden's team played to win, and win they did.
"That's the worst thing you can say about someone, that they lost on purpose," Madden said years later. "Just for the sake of the organization. Just for the sake of football, just for the sake of what's right. You've got to go win."
The Raiders beat the Bengals 35-20, and three weeks later, defeated the Steelers 24-7 to reach their first Super Bowl. And yes, the fact that they beat the Steelers in the playoffs made Oakland's first Super Bowl win ever sweeter.
"That [win over the Bengals] was the most proud game that I ever coached in my life. I don't know any other way to play, and thank goodness, my players didn't either."
The Steelers gained momentum from Sunday's win over the Colts. Like Madden's Raiders experienced 44 years ago, a win over Browns on Sunday would undoubtedly give the Steelers even more momentum and confidence entering the 2020 postseason, a postseason that would not include their longtime rival.