Gene Collier: Tomlin's choices fuel a wild, wacky Steelers finish



GREEN BAY, Wis.  ---  In nearly 3 1/2 hours of an unrelenting tangle of body parts that somehow generated 713 yards of offense around four turnovers and 16 penalties, the Steelers beat the Packers here Sunday by two feet:

Mat McBriar's foot, and Brett Keisel's foot.

But if you're including all critical appendages to this 38-31 riot that wasn't quelled until the final play, you have to throw in McBriar's arm, as well, because it was the Steelers Australian punter who turned a fourth-down fake into a 30-yard completion to fourth-string tight end David Paulson, triggering a 21-point third quarter.

Steelers Report: Steelers 38, Packers 31

Steelers beat writers Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac talk about the Steelers 38-31 win against the Green Bay Packers today at Lambeau Field. (Video by Peter Diana; 12/22/2013)

From there, Mike Tomlin's team managed to bump its playoff chances up just a bit, from almost purely hypothetical to merely bleak. Four things have to happen next weekend for the Steelers to stretch this campaign into January, but I think one of them is that somebody from that Duck Dynasty show has to be appointed to the Supreme Court.

And confirmed.

But for the moment, let's meet McBriar.

"G'day," he said in the winning locker room.

Honest to God.

Our initial question felt like it should be, "How long since you've thrown a pass?"

"That would be my first pass, first I've attempted in 10 years of football."

"Any attempts at any other level of football, college, grammar school, etc.?"

"Uh ... no."

And that's where kicker Shaun Suisham said, "Well, you have to start with boomerangs."

As it happens, McBriar has been in this league just as long as Ben Roethlisberger, but at one point in Sunday's rollicking second half, Ben was averaging 6.6 yards per completion while McBriar was averaging 30.

That was because on fourth-and-2 from the Steelers 44, McBriar took Greg Warren's long snap and rolled right with evident malice. That he lofted a 30-yard strike to Paulson at the Packers 26 was one thing -- that he did so after careful consideration was quite another.

"Actually, Paulson was my second option," McBriar said, confirming that special-teamer Robert Golden was the first. "I've done it enough in practice that I felt really good about it, and I think everyone else did too. There were times a few weeks ago where maybe I thought, 'Well, this could be nuts.' But as I got more and more comfortable doing something I'm not used to doing, I felt better about it."

If that play was the fulcrum on which the Steelers' record ascended to 7-8, something McBriar was a lot more comfortable doing was practically decisive. That would be his near-perfectly-placed punt, fluttering in the snow globe they call Lambeau Field and pinning the Packers at their 8 with exactly three minutes left and the score tied, 31-31.

That's where Keisel's foot came in. The injured foot that has kept "Da Beard" on the sideline for most of the past five games not only allowed him a full workday, but ol' 99 in those moments stepped past his pain for two monster plays in a three-down sequence.

He sacked Matt Flynn on first down, pushing the Pack back to the 5, and ran the quarterback down near the Green Bay sideline on third-and-8, flopping on the loose ball that Troy Polamalu ripped from Flynn's arms a split-second earlier.

"A team thing," is how the ever-modest Keisel described those plays. "On the sack, the guys got him out of there and I was just able to come off the block and get my arms around him, and on the fumble, you've gotta give Troy a lot of credit, running to the ball like that and getting the ball out."

So long as credit is due, you might include some for running back Le'Veon Bell, who snapped the Steelers' ignominious string of 22 games without a 100-yard rusher. Bell ran 26 times for 124 yards, an impressive performance to everyone but the coaching staff, which didn't use him to grind the clock with a 31-21 lead (Roethlisberger's one interception at that point was richly deserved), and threw passes on back-to-back downs from the Green Bay 15 in the final minutes when a short field goal separated them from a 34-31 lead. Tomlin did call a time out after the first incompletion, saving Green Bay the trouble and potentially enabling a tying touchdown drive that ended 6 yards short.

"I'm not into that," Tomlin said of taking the field goal. "We had an opportunity to put the ball in the end zone. In weather conditions like that, anything can happen. The snapper could roll the ball back. The snap could have gone through [the holder's] hands."

But only Green Bay linebacker Nick Perry saved the Steelers on that roll of the dice. Perry stepped into the neutral zone on fourth-and-3 and with the Steelers finally in field-goal formation. The offsides call gave the Steelers a first down and Bell scored two plays later, but even with those two additional plays, the Steelers milked only 26 seconds from the clock on six plays.

Too bad they didn't have a 100-yard rusher going against the 25th-ranked rush defense in the NFL.

Oh wait, they did.

Asked about that, Tomlin said, "I'm just glad we won the football game."

They'll need to win another one to play some January football, and they'll need a whole lot of help. After Sunday's 205 minutes of galloping insanity, you may assume nothing.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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