Tomlin closes door on Jets by ‘playing to win’

PITTSBURGH – At the moment of truth, the mouth that roared loudest – and most successfully – was that of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

Not Rex Ryan’s.

With two minutes remaining and Pittsburgh clinging to a five-point lead facing third-and-6 from the New York Jets’ 40-yard line, Tomlin walked over to his offensive coaches and said in so many words, “We’re playing to win, throw the ball.”

Tomlin holds his second AFC title in three seasons.
(Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

Talk about, er, guts. Roughly 90 percent of the coaches in this country wouldn’t have had the chutzpah to make that call. Conventional wisdom is simple: Run the ball, probably come up short, but at least burn some clock before punting and giving the ball back to the Jets. In the best-case scenario, the Jets would get the ball with about 1:20 remaining somewhere around their own 10 and have to drive the length of the field with no timeouts against the best defense in the league over the past decade.

No one would have blamed Tomlin for taking that route. Heck Ryan, himself a guy who is never afraid to announce his presence, was shocked at what he saw as the Steelers came to the line in a five-receiver, shotgun formation.

“I was actually shocked they didn’t run the football,” Ryan said, shaking his head ever so slightly and rolling over all the frustrating plays he has endured in losing in the AFC championship game in each of the past three years, twice to Pittsburgh (in 2009 while serving as the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator) and this time by a 24-19 final at Heinz Field. “They spread us out and … I actually expected them to run a quarterback draw there.”

Fact is, the Steelers had already thrown the dice once before on that drive, throwing for a first down to tight end Heath Miller(notes) on a second-and-9 play. Tempting fate once was impressive.

Twice? Well, sometimes that’s the difference between going to a Super Bowl and driving off into the icy chill of a Pittsburgh night for the offseason.

“We weren’t going to play not to lose,” said Tomlin, whose Steelers eventually ran out the clock after the game-deciding 14-yard connection from Ben Roethlisberger(notes) to Antonio Brown(notes). “That’s why we threw the ball to Heath Miller on a bootleg on second down prior to that and we got that first down.”

For the second time in Tomlin’s four-year run with the Steelers, he is taking Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl. With that, Tomlin has put himself into elite status among NFL coaches. Sure, one Super Bowl is impressive, but there are some guys who have been at the right place at the right time to win championships in the past, such as Barry Switzer and Don McCafferty. To some, Tomlin guiding the Steelers has been like giving Bill Clinton credit for the economic explosion of the 1990s. Yeah, he was in charge, but he was really riding the wave.

In this situation, however, Tomlin was like Lieutenant Dan facing the hurricane. He didn’t just lead the way to victory, he faced down the storm in the process. Then again, this shouldn’t have been a nail-biter after the Steelers built a 24-3 lead in the first half.

But the Jets, led by fast-maturing quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes), made a game of it in the second half. If not for an impressive goal-line stand by Pittsburgh in the fourth quarter, this game might have gone to overtime as the Jets put together drives of 90, 80 and 58 yards in three of their four second-half possessions.

“With the way they were playing, it was probably a good idea he went for it,” Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu(notes) said of Tomlin’s decision. “If you look at it this way, he’s showing a lot of confidence in us either way. He’s telling the offense he believes they can go get it and he’s putting trust in the defense that we’re going to stop them even if the offense doesn’t do it.”

That’s some good spin-doctoring, but there’s little question that Pittsburgh fans and plenty of people around the league would have second-guessed Tomlin if Roethlisberger hadn’t made another of his clutch plays. After the Jets took away primary option Hines Ward(notes) by dropping three defenders to his side, Roethlisberger scrambled right, buying just enough time as rookie receiver Brown ran from left to right into an open area for the clinching grab.

Yep, Pittsburgh’s eighth trip to the Super Bowl came down to a guy who opened the season on suspension from the NFL throwing to a guy who was at Central Michigan last season.

“That’s pretty funny, isn’t it? A third-and-6 to win the game for a rookie from Central Michigan,” Tomlin said. “Those guys [Brown and fellow rookie wideout, Emmanuel Sanders(notes)] have proven that they belong for the better part of the second half of the season. I am awed and happy for him.”

Roethlisberger jogs into the end zone for the Steelers’ second TD.
(Josh Mauga(notes)/US Presswire)

Tomlin should also be plenty happy for Roethlisberger, who made this game work at all the critical moments. His final stats (10-of-19 for 133 yards, two interceptions and an abysmal 35.5 rating) were brutal, but he was huge on third down as the Steelers converted six of 11. The Jets did a great job of taking away primary receivers Ward and Mike Wallace(notes) (they combined for three catches for 20 yards), but Roethlisberger hit critical throws to Miller, Brown, Sanders and running back Rashard Mendenhall(notes) (153 yards rushing and receiving and one touchdown) throughout the game.

“This was the kind of game we all expect from Ben in critical times,” Ward said. “He’s not always going to look pretty and he’s not going to get compared to guys like Tom Brady(notes) and Peyton Manning(notes). But he’s going to make big plays that win games. … To me, when I have Ben back there, I feel like we can win any game and that’s what we did [Sunday night]. We made the critical plays.”

Or, in Tomlin’s case, the critical call.

“He just said, ‘Go win it,’ and we did,” Ward said.

Without a second thought?

“I don’t think he has that in him,” Polamalu said.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jan 24, 2011