Week 16 Takeaways

Who is to Blame for the Steelers’ Failures?
What team has done less with more than the Steelers over the last 5 years? They are among the most talented rosters in the league, but they continue to be defined by their sloppy and undisciplined play. This season, they’ve tied the Hue Jackson/Tyrod Taylor Browns, lost to the Raiders, and given away games to the Broncos and Chargers. On Sunday in New Orleans, they might have given away their season. Two costly 4th-quarter fumbles and an inexplicable failed fake punt sealed their fate.

Mike Tomlin’s decision to attempt a fake punt came on a 4th-and-5 from the Steelers’ own 42-yard line with more than four minutes remaining and a four-point lead. His reasoning was basically that he wanted to either not give the ball back to Brees, or if they did so, at least give it to him with a short field so he could score a touchdown quickly, and the Steelers would then still have time to drive down the field for a game-tying field goal. We’re sorry, but…what?

Let’s break down this decision a little bit. First, even if the fake punt had worked, the game wouldn’t have been over. There were still four minutes remaining. The Saints still had all three of their timeouts as well as the 2-minute warning. The Steelers were not yet in scoring position. They very well could have converted on the fake punt and still been in a position to have to punt the ball away to Brees a few plays later anyway. They still would have needed to score or gain multiple first downs. Going for it on 4th down to maintain possession and win the game makes sense. To do so in your own territory when you still needed multiple other things to go right does not. The reward was not worth the risk in this case.

Still, if your line of reasoning is that you don’t want to give the ball back to Drew Brees, why not go for it using your offense instead of your special teams? With your season on the line, wouldn’t you rather leave it up to Roethlisberger, Brown, Smith-Schuster and that offensive line to gain 5 yards instead of fullback Roosevelt Nix on a fake punt?

The other question is, why was Tomlin so terrified of giving the ball back to Brees? Yes, Brees is a great quarterback having an MVP-caliber season. The Saints Offense isn’t unstoppable, though. This has especially been the case over the last 4 weeks. On their previous three possessions, the Steelers Defense had forced the Saints to punt twice and attempt a long field goal. Not to mention, this defense shut down Tom Brady just one week ago. Tomlin likes to say he doesn’t want to play scared, but he seemed pretty terrified of Drew Brees driving the length of the field AND eating up all 4 remaining minutes.

We believe teams should be aggressive. You play to win the game, not to hope you don’t lose. But there is a difference between taking risks and being reckless. Tomlin’s decision on Sunday was the latter, and the Steelers’ season is in the hands of the Browns right now as a result.

The AFC is Wide Open:
Yes, the Patriots are more vulnerable than usual this season, but this was not a good week for the other potential AFC contenders. The Chargers, Chiefs, and Texans all got exposed in Week 16.

Which AFC team is actually capable of beating Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the playoffs? Is Kansas City really a serious threat with that defense? Do the Texans or Chargers really have enough to dethrone the Patriots? Do the Ravens, Steelers, Colts, or Titans have the ability to win in New England?

Each of the AFC contenders has elements that can beat the Patriots. But can any of them play the complete game needed to win, even against this compromised New England team? We remain skeptical.

The NFC Goes Through New Orleans:
The Saints have been able to win no matter where they’ve played this season, but they’ll be an especially tough out in the Superdome in January. They have been the best team in the NFL all season. They have an explosive passing attack and a versatile running game. Their defense doesn’t get as many headlines, but they’re more than just an afterthought.

Since their Week 11 blowout of the defending champion Eagles, the Saints haven’t looked like the unstoppable wrecking ball on offense that they were on their way to a 9-1 start. They’ve still won 4 of 5 games since then, though. They’ve proven they can win ugly if necessary, largely on the strength of their defense, which is what you often see out of championship teams.