What’s it going to take for the Steelers to make the playoffs? Wins, obviously.
Through the first nine games, the Steelers had only won four, and things looked pretty darn bleak. But the schedule-makers gifted two games with Cleveland in the final seven weeks, the first of which was a relatively convincing win in Week 11 to re-set the Steelers’ record at 5-5.
Pittsburgh was able to give thanks last Thursday to the NFL gods — those who oversee the league’s concussion protocol — who kept Andrew Luck out of commission on Thanksgiving night, handing the Steelers their easiest win of the season, Browns included.
Suddenly, hope has returned, as 6-5 is enormously different than 5-6 (just ask the team dealing with that on the other side of the state), especially in an entirely winnable (read: mediocre) division like the AFC North. Not only are the Steelers back in position to fight for a playoff berth, they might just go ahead and win the whole darn division.
The concern now, of course, is finding a way to navigate the latter part of the schedule to ensure they win the games the Steelers are supposed to win, avoiding any debilitating losses that could end a season in December that had Super Bowl hopes — dare-I-say expectations — back in September.
Steelers Remaining Schedule
- Dec. 4 — 4:25 p.m. — NY Giants at Steelers
- Dec. 11— 1 p.m. — Steelers at Buffalo
- Dec. 18 — 8:30 p.m. — Steelers at Cincinnati
- Dec. 25 — 4:30 p.m. — Baltimore at Steelers
- Jan. 1 —1 p.m. — Cleveland at Steelers
Pittsburgh is just 3-2 at home so far this season and face two potential playoff teams in their final three games at Heinz Field. Also, the Browns. And yet, as good as the Giants are — this week’s opponent has six wins in their last six games — their schedule over those last six games have consisted of wins over Baltimore (at home), the Rams, the Eagles, the Bengals, the Bears and the Browns. Exactly one of those teams is over .500 and the Giants’ most recent five opponents have a current combined record of 20-46-1.
In other words, as good as the Giants are playing, the Steelers are the best team they’ve faced in a month and a half. Pittsburgh can absolutely win this weekend, and maybe even should.
Buffalo is 6-5 and 3-2 at home, with wins against a scuffling Arizona Cardinals, the terrible San Francisco 49ers and Jacksonville, one of the worst teams in football. Sure, Pittsburgh isn’t exactly beating the world on the road — and Ben Roethlisberger has been a shell of himself away from Heinz — but the Bills are a team the Steelers should probably still beat.
Cincinnati stinks, and even with the rivalry they’ve built with the Steelers and Marvin Lewis’ job potentially on the line, the Steelers can look at that game as an expected victory; a must win if they maintain any expectation of even staying in the conversation of being a playoff team.
Admittedly, it’s not easy, given the way Pittsburgh’s season has gone, to look at 6-5 and see 9-5. And yet, it’s possible (and maybe even probable), leading to a Week 16 home tilt with Baltimore that should decide the division.
All Roads Lead to Baltimore
The Ravens have the league’s 25th-ranked offense, but the 4th-best defense, and the best rush defense in either conference. Baltimore is a good team, and with the division on the line that game will have everyone’s attention. But leading up to that, Baltimore may only be favored in one of their next three games, hosting red-hot Miami this weekend, then traveling to New England before returning home to host the Eagles.
Baltimore finishes at Pittsburgh and at Cincinnati, another way the scheduling gods have favored the Steelers this season. it sure feels like it’s Pittsburgh’s division to lose. That would tempt playoff fate, surely, because if they don’t win the division — let’s say the Steelers lose two of their remaining five games, including the one to Baltimore — it doesn’t seem like 9-7 will be enough to snag a wild card.
Wild Card Hopes
Let’s assume the obvious: The Patriots, at 9-2, are getting a bye. The Raiders (9-2) or Kansas City (8-3) are on pace for the second bye, with the other team in the best position for the first wild card slot.
That leaves the second wild card slot as an open fight for Denver (7-4), Miami (7-4), Buffalo (6-5), the Baltimore/Pittsburgh loser (6-5) and the Houston (6-6)/Tennessee (6-5) loser in the AFC South.
Kansas City’s schedule is perhaps the toughest of the teams in the playoff mix, going to Atlanta then hosting Oakland, Tennessee and Denver before finishing at San Diego. Denver has Jacksonville and Tennessee on the road, then New England at home, the game at KC and Oakland at home.
Miami goes to Baltimore, hosts Arizona, travels to New York to face the Jets and Bills then hosts New England to finish the season. Are there three wins in that set?
Buffalo has Oakland on the road, then home games with the Steelers, Browns and Dolphins before going to the Jets to end the season. Yes, we just wrote off Buffalo as a team Pittsburgh should beat, but they did get Sammy Watkins back, making the offense far more fearsome. Do they have three wins in those five and if one isn’t against the Steelers, is that even enough to qualify?
Houston’s schedule is easier than Tennessee’s, which is pretty tough, and it seems likely that division will only have one playoff team. So really, even if the Steelers don’t win the division, getting to 10-6 should make the playoffs, with 9-7 maybe being enough, with some help.
So are they in or are they out?!?!
Rather than rolling into a ‘if the playoffs started today’ scenario at this point in the piece, let’s end thusly: Two weeks ago the Steelers looked like they were in a ton of trouble and Mike Tomlin was sitting on one of the hottest seats in the league. But after rollover wins against Cleveland and Indianapolis, the playoff landscape has opened up for Pittsburgh. The defense didn’t magically stop being terrible the last two weeks, so it wouldn’t be the biggest shock in the world if the Steelers don’t make the playoffs. Still, with five games to go, the AFC deck is stacked in their favor. And nobody will want to see that offense in January.