PITTSBURGH - It remains to be seen if the Pittsburgh Steelers can still sneak into the AFC playoffs as a wild card entry.
Sunday evening's last-second 37-36 victory over the Green Bay Packers kept their flickering hopes alive for another week.
But there can be no doubt about this: Pulling out that game saved their head coach from a tsunami of second guessing that would last well into the offseason.
Kicker Jeff Reed is congratulated by his teammates after hitting the extra point that gave the Steelers a 37-36 win and a 7-7 record.
Ben Roethlisberger had a monster day, setting a Steelers record with 503 passing yards.
Turns out he needed every one of them.
His last 86-yard touchdown drive saved Tomlin from the armchair coaches' torching for his mind-boggling decision to order an onside kick after the Steelers had taken a two-point lead with 3:58 left in the fourth quarter.
The plan went awry when Ike Taylor touched the ball short of the required 10 yards, which gave the Packers the ball at the Steelers' 39.
Green Bay went on to score a touchdown and, with the two-point conversion, took a six-point lead with 2:08 left.
All's well that ends well, but let's hit the pause button right there.
There's something to be said for being bold and aggressive and innovative and unconventional.
This was the wrong time for all four of those.
Maybe Tomlin had a bad vision of another inadequate Jeff Reed pop-up kick. Maybe - and this is more likely - he had little confidence in his defense and figured his best bet was to get the ball back in Roethlisberger's hot hand as soon as possible.
Whatever the case, he made the call and it was the wrong one.
Asked to describe the sideline reaction to the call for an onside kick, center Justin Hartwig said, "We heard about it and we were kind of whispering to each other. People were going, Really? Really?"
But you can't blame the players for wondering. They know the game and know what a questionable call it was.
The defensive players apparently took it for the slight it was.
"It hurts your pride, but at the same time you understand," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "We didn't stop nobody all day."
Tomlin's explanation didn't run from the truth, and didn't try to spare anyone's feelings.
First, he was hoping for the element of surprise. He was 100 percent correct about that. Nobody expected an onside kick there.
Beyond that, he knew that both offenses were hot and almost unstoppable.
He figured that even if the Packers took advantage of the short field and scored, the Steelers would still have time for a last drive to pull out the game.
He was right about both parts of that.
But why take the risk of giving them the ball just 19 yards away from the red zone to start a possession?
This might be a Steelers landmark: It was proof that the head coach lacked confidence in the team's defense.
How long has it been since a Steelers coach ran the game thinking that defense couldn't be trusted, and the offense would have to win the game?
Tomlin insisted he was just reacting to Sunday's play and that there were no long-term implications based on the decision to order an onside kick.
"It's not about confidence, it's about plays," Tomlin said. "It doesn't speak to anything moving forward. Today, I was concerned about our ability to stop them."
Tomlin referred to the Steelers playoff hopes as being on "life support." These are desperate times.
Calling for the onside kick was clearly a desperate measure.
Mehno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His weblog is at altoonamirror.com.