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Resting key starters against the Browns is the right move for the Steelers

Even with an outside shot at the AFC's top seed, resting his key starters against the Browns is the smart move for Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

Carolina Panthers v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

As of this writing (Friday, December 29, 2017), there has been no official announcement as to whether or not Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will rest his key starters in the regular season-finale vs. the Browns this Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

However, if you want to go by right tackle Marcus Gilbert (who was suspended for a PED that, as for as I know, had nothing to do with enhancing a person's likeliness to lie), those key starters, the ones Pittsburgh simply can't afford to lose if it wants to truly be a Super Bowl-contender once its portion of the playoffs begins on the weekend of January 13, will sit against Cleveland.

"We'll have Landry Jones in there," Gilbert told the Trib's Tim Benz on Thursday. "We won't have Ben. Or 8-4 [Antonio Brown, who is dealing with a calf injury]. Or Le'Veon Bell."

If true (and it might prove to be before the piece is published), this makes me very happy.

I said as much on the Final Score, Monday night, after the Steelers clinched at least a No. 2 seed with a 34-6 pasting of the Texans.

I've actually been hoping for it since Jesse James was robbed against the Patriots in such a demoralizing fashion in Week 15 that even famed outlaw, Jesse James, would have said, "Now that just ain't right!"

Let's use some common sense, here, the Patriots are playing those stinking Jets at home, and all they have to do to sew up the top seed is win.

In other words, I don't like the Steelers chances of capturing their first No. 1 seed since the 2004/5 NFL postseason.

But if they do actually rest their vital starters, I like their chances of making it to their first Super Bowl since the 2010/11 NFL postseason.

For one thing, they only have to play two games to get there (this part of the equation has already been clinched).

Secondly, resting them against Cleveland assures that Ben Roethlisberger and Bell won't be joining Brown on the "Will he? Or won't he?" list in the two weeks leading up to the Divisional Round.

If I had my druthers, I'd like to see Maurkice Pouncey, Cameron Heyward, Gilbert, etc., etc. join the aforementioned vital starters on the sidelines.

I realize you can't deactivate everyone—45 guys have to stand on the sidelines in their uniforms—but looking at the team's official depth chart, hey, I don't know who Matt Feiler is, but let him start ahead of David DeCastro at right guard.

Chris Hubbard and B.J. Finney each started multiple games this season at right tackle and left guard, respectively, and nobody even noticed that Gilbert and Ramon Foster were out (thank you, Mike Munchak)!

Anyway, throw Hubbard back out there at right tackle, and let Finney start at center in-place of Pouncey.

On the defensive side, I would take cornerback Joe Haden, who just came back to play against the Texans after missing six weeks with a broken fibula, and make him one of the inactives for Sunday.

Let's face it, Haden has been living on Cloud 9 since being paroled by Cleveland and signed by the Steelers back in August (he actually slept in his AFC North Division Championship t-shirt—something jaded Steelers fans won't even do anymore). So close to the playoffs for the first time in his career, the last thing Haden needs at this point is to miss them due to suffering another injury—and this time against his old team.

I would go up to Coty Sensabaugh and say, "Son, we signed you for many reasons. One of them is go out there and play against the Browns, while we place Haden in protective custody."

Heck, I'd sit Artie Burns and tell rookie Cam Sutton to go play with Josh Gordon for an hour.

You might think the Steelers need to "do the right thing" and go for the top seed. But, again, common sense needs to prevail in this situation.

The last time Pittsburgh was in a similar circumstance (needing a win and some help to clinch a higher seed), was back in 2011, when the team traveled to Cleveland for the regular season-finale.

At the start of the day, the Steelers (11-4) needed to win and the Ravens (11-4) to lose to the Bengals in-order to clinch the AFC North and the No. 2 seed.

Tomlin actually owed it to his players to go for it that day, considering the huge disparity between a No. 2 seed and a No. 5 seed (Pittsburgh's fate with a loss or a Ravens' win).

In-case you may have forgotten, the Steelers were simply ravaged by injuries down the stretch of the 2011 season, and running back Rashard Mendenhall joined a growing list of wounded, after tearing his ACL against the Browns.

The Ravens didn't lose to the Bengals that day, six years ago, but Pittsburgh did lose its starting running back for the playoffs.

The Steelers simply can't afford to lose someone like a Bell for the postseason; Tomlin has seen that storyline play-out far too many times to risk throwing his prized running back out there, when the odds of the game meaning much are quite low.

In 2008, Tomlin, in only his second season as coach, seemed pretty determined to play his starters against a Browns team that, like this season, was going nowhere.

I can't recall if it was right after Pittsburgh fell to the Titans in Week 16, thus eliminating it from top seed-contention, or at his weekly press-conference two days later, but Tomlin seemed quite defiant when insisting that the starters would play against the Browns, even though his team had the No. 2 seed clinched and nothing of value to capture.

As Jeff Hartman pointed out on Friday, the consequences were almost disastrous, after Roethlisberger was slammed to the turf in the first half and had to be carted off the field with what was later reported to be a spinal concussion. As history points out, Roethlisberger was more than fine for the postseason, as he helped the Steelers capture their sixth Lombardi trophy.

Nine years later, Tomlin has grown a lot as a head coach, and through trial and error, recognizes that superstars are more valuable than super seeds.

I realize rust might be a concern, but come on, two weeks or three, what's the difference?

It's like being wet. Once you're wet, you're wet, there aren't varying degrees of it.

I mean, can your body really tell the difference between a two-week break and a three-week break?

It isn't like the Steelers superstars won't be practicing, watching film and getting their bodies ready over the next two-plus weeks.

Besides, after 14 years, I highly doubt someone like Roethlisberger will succumb to rust (the Jaguars defense, maybe, but not rust).

I know, what if the Jets win?

Yes, well, what if Landry defeats a Browns team that has won two games since October 11, 2015?

Can you imagine how much you'd love Jones if he came through and was somehow vital in capturing the No. 1 seed?

Okay, you probably still wouldn't care for his abilities, but I'll bet you'd like him almost as much as you did when he was drafted in 2013, and you secretly wanted him to replace Roethlisberger as the starting quarterback (you know who you are).

Finally, the Steelers may have something to gain by winning on Sunday, but if it comes at the expense of losing a vital starter for the postseason, the price would be too high.