The decision to play a noticeably hobbled Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback against the San Francisco 49ers Monday night sparked a lot of debate, but the Steelers had the No. 1 seed hanging in the balance.
The decision to keep Roethlisberger in the game in the fourth quarter when there was little hope for victory provided more questions for coach Mike Tomlin regarding the use of his star quarterback and his long-term planning for the playoffs.
Whether Roethlisberger's subpar performance on his bum ankle will change Tomlin's plans for a game Saturday against the St. Louis Rams at Heinz Field are not known. Tomlin said Roethlisberger will be evaluated today when he reports to work and a decision on his playing status will be determined later in the week.
What is known is that much has changed regarding the AFC playoff picture after a 20-3 loss to the 49ers. The Steelers have a playoff berth clinched, but they let an opportunity for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs go by the wayside by losing.
Had the Steelers won their final three games they were going to be the top seed in the AFC. Now, they are staring at the likelihood of going on the road for a wild-card game.
The Steelers can still win the AFC North Division, but they have to beat the Rams and Cleveland Browns and hope the Baltimore Ravens lose one of their final two games against either the Browns or Cincinnati Bengals. Even if that happens, the Steelers might not receive one of the two coveted first-round byes because New England owns a better record and Houston owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Steelers.
If the Ravens win their remaining two games, the Steelers appear to be locked into the No. 5 seed and likely will take on the AFC West champion on wild-card weekend. The Denver Broncos and Tim Tebow currently own a one-game lead in the AFC West.
"We have to assess ourselves from an injury standpoint, from a player availability standpoint and formulate a plan we can execute at a high level given the circumstances," Tomlin said of his preparations for a Christmas Eve contest against the Rams.
Roethlisberger sustained a high ankle sprain in a Dec.8 victory against the Browns and he did not practice much before the game against the 49ers. Roethlisberger spent most of the week getting treatment on the ankle and only did limited work in practice later in the week.
"We don't live in our fears," Tomlin said of the decision to play Roethlisberger. "We live in our hopes. We made a decision that we were going to give that guy an opportunity to play, and we don't second-guess it regardless of outcome. We understand we open ourselves up for judgment, particularly when we lose. Such is life in the National Football League when you compete in the manner that we do. We'll do it without shame. We won't apologize for it."
Roethlisberger passed for 330 yards, but he committed four turnovers in the loss. He threw three interceptions and lost a fumble while being sacked. One of Roethlisberger's best attributes is his ability to elude pressure and extend plays, but he was not able to do that against the 49ers because his injury severely decreased his mobility.
Tomlin said he did not think about replacing Roethlisberger.
"Not really," he said. "There were some points where I wish we performed better. No issues in terms of considering pulling him at any juncture in the game based on health."
Tomlin acknowledged Roethlisberger lobbied him to remain in the game until the end. He said he wanted to honor the request from his quarterback.
"He's a competitor," Tomlin said. "I'm not going to deny those guys of those opportunities. His teammates definitely have an appreciation for that. That's how we're built."
Tomlin was asked about three penalties called on the Steelers and indicated all three were questionable.
The penalties in question were an illegal leaping call on Lawrence Timmons, an interference penalty on Kennan Lewis on a muffed punt and an illegal chop block on Isaac Redman.
The illegal leaping call on Timmons led to the 49ers' second touchdown. The penalty occurred on a field-goal attempt by David Akers and the result was a first-and-goal for the 49ers. Instead of the score being 16-3, the 49ers went ahead 20-3 after Frank Gore scored a 5-yard run.
"I didn't get [an explanation] that I was satisfied with," Tomlin said. "That was a big question mark for me, but definitely not the reason we lost the game."
San Francisco punt returner Kyle Williams muffed a punt early in the third quarter, but Lewis was called for interfering with Williams as he attempted to make the catch. The 49ers led, 6-0, at the time, and the Steelers would have been in 49ers territory if the penalty flag had not been thrown.
"Another one that was questionable in my eyes, but again not a reason we lost the game," he said. "Our performance was."
By the time he was asked about the chop block penalty on Redman, Tomlin cut off the questioner and ended the news conference.
"Guys, I'm not going to complain about the officiating or the penalties," he said. "You guys can feel free to do so. We lost that game because we didn't execute well enough to win it."
And then he walked out of the room.
Running back Mewelde Moore was the only player ruled out for the Rams game. Moore has an MCL sprain.
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley was taken out of the game in the second half as a precaution. Tomlin said Woodley did not have any setbacks with the hamstring injury that kept him out for four games in November and December.
Running back Rashard Mendenhall has sore ribs, but Tomlin indicated he should be able to play against the Rams. Other players who missed the 49ers game because of injuries -- center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle), linebacker Chris Carter (hamstring) and receiver Emmanuel Sanders (foot) -- have not been ruled out of the Rams game and will be evaluated as the week progresses.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published December 21, 2011 5:00 AM