Here’s the thing about playoff games. They are win or go home.
We all know this because we have common sense (also because we have seen Friday Night Lights more times than we care to admit), but apparently Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin does not fall in this group that includes literally every person on earth.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were 11-0, sputtered down the stretch while still managing to win the AFC North, and had a player who decided to publicly dismiss their playoff opponent after getting called out by the entire internet for how much he mocked teams on a continual basis this season.
In spite of all of these things Mike Tomlin still managed to make the worst decision that anybody associated with the Steelers did all season when he chose to punt at the start of the fourth quarter in what would become a 48-37 Browns win on Sunday night.
Mike Tomlin made a very bad decision to punt
At one point in time on Sunday night the Pittsburgh Steelers were down 28-0. That point was the first quarter. The Cleveland Browns scored more points in the first quarter of a playoff game than any team in NFL history!
Impressively, Mike Tomlin’s Steelers found a way to rally back. Mounting drive after drive when you’re down by four possessions is no easy task but it’s one that is possible (obligatory shout out to the 2016 Atlanta Falcons).
Tomlin’s squad managed to get within two possessions and were challenging to cut that in half when the third quarter ended. He had the time between periods to consider what he wanted to do on 4th and 1 from his own 46-yard line, in a playoff game where his team had outscored the other 23-7 at that point.
What Mike Tomlin did next was frankly inexcusable. He not only chose to punt, but he chose it with two opportunities to ultimately consider it. The Steelers took an intentional delay of game after trying to draw Cleveland offsides, but even after the penalty yardage the Surrender Index still felt that going for it was the right move. Tomlin disagreed.
*PIT committed a (likely intentional) delay of game penalty, moving the play from 4th & 1 at the PIT 46 to 4th & 6 at the PIT 41.
If this penalty was in fact unintentional, the Surrender Index would be 3.46, ranking at the 82nd percentile of the 2020 season.
— Surrender Index (@surrender_index) January 11, 2021
Like ogres, this situation is an onion. It has multiple layers. Amazingly, the decision to punt gets worse and worse every time you peel one back.
As noted the Steelers had cut the number of possessions that they trailed in half by this point. With only one quarter left the Steelers would not be guaranteed many possessions, but their offense was finally starting to find itself on the night. Consider that they wound up scoring two more touchdowns throughout the remainder of the game which, oh I don’t know, might have been valuable to think about at the time of the punt.
What’s more is that the possession Mike Tomlin punted off of was incredibly short. Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for a gain of four yards on first down, he found him again for a loss of two on second down, and he repeated again with JuJu on third down for a gain of seven.
Pittsburgh had scored on all four of their possessions prior to this point in the game. There was literally zero reason both to doubt that the Steelers were capable of getting the needed yard and that going for it was the right and necessary decision.
The football gods were clearly angered by Tomlin’s cowardly decision and showed it on the Browns next possession. Cleveland traveled 80 yards in 140 seconds and delivered what was sort of (but kind of not really) the final blow. At least to the Steelers’ pride and optimism.
As if all of the math, data, and logic weren’t enough, consider that the Steelers scored a touchdown THE NEXT TIME THAT THEY GOT THE FOOTBALL. Perhaps the offense was really in a nice place and therefore capable of obtaining one yard, Mike?
Congratulations to the Cleveland Browns. The Pittsburgh Steelers will have a long time to think about the decision they made and how wrong it was.