NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers made the playoffs! What’s ahead for the AFC North champs

After a historic win over Baltimore, the Steelers are the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs. Let’s try to make sense of everything else.

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Merry Christmas, Pittsburgh. The Steelers are in the playoffs.

Antonio Brown’s lunge toward the goal line in the waning seconds of Sunday’s division decider over the Ravens is a play that will live on in Steelers’ history. An immaculate re-stretchin — (I’ll show myself out.)

It’s hard to remember that two months ago the Steelers were in total disarray. Local pundits had started the clamor for Mike Tomlin’s ouster, the defense was a total disaster and Ben Roethlisberger was dreadful on the road. And while the defense still hasn’t been great the last six weeks, and Ben has been up-and-down both home and away — as evidenced by two bad picks and a game-winning drive on Sunday, he’s up-and-down in the same game, even — nobody seems to be calling for the head coach to be fired anymore. Not after he led the Steelers to the division title on the back of six straight wins.

With one (meaningless) game to play against the Browns, Pittsburgh not only qualified for the playoffs after sitting at 4-5 through nine games, but they will be able to rest their stars against Cleveland, giving the team an ostensible bye before the playoffs, if not in terms of advancing in the postseason, at least in terms of getting rested and healthy for the NFL’s knockout tournament.

How did the Steelers get in?

The impact of the Brown’s outstretched arm was seismic on the entire AFC.

Had Baltimore won on Sunday, both the Ravens and Steelers would be 9-7, with Baltimore needing to beat Cincinnati next week to win the division, regardless of what the Steelers did against the Browns. With Miami and Kansas City winning this weekend, the Steelers’ only route to the playoffs would have been to win next week and hope Baltimore lost, as Miami owns the most important tie-breaker over Pittsburgh should those teams have ended up in a Wild Card tussle with the same record: A head-to-head win.

Now, with the Steelers at 10-5, the Ravens were officially eliminated with a game to play, and Kansas City’s win over Denver late Sunday night knocked out the defending champs, giving Miami the last spot in the playoffs.

History in the making

The Steelers won their 600th game as a franchise on Sunday and, per ESPN’s stats and info, join the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and New York Giants as the only franchises with 600 wins.

The Bears, who have been playing since 1920, have 744 wins as a franchise, and a .567 win percentage. The Packers started a year later and have 729 victories, and a .568 win percentage (and a lot of ties). The Giants started in 1925 and have 683 wins, for a .544 percentage, while the Steelers started in 1933 and just topped 600 victories, with a .528 franchise win percentage.

(Per Pro Football Reference, the team with the best winning percentage in NFL history is the Dallas Cowboys, with a .573 win rate and 492 victories since 1960.)

The No. 3-seed Steelers

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Everything came up Pittsburgh on Sunday, and a convoluted set of circumstances has the Steelers locked in to the third seed of the AFC playoffs with a game at hand.

Houston, by nature of winning the AFC South, is slotted into the fourth seed and while there’s a chance the Steelers could lose Sunday and a Texans victory would put both teams into the playoffs with the same overall record, conference record and record against common opponents, the NFL has already announced the Steelers have the necessary tie-breakers — it gets into strength of victory and strength of schedule before offense and defense rankings as further deciders — it’s easier to take the league’s word for it, enjoy New Year’s Day without worrying about the Steelers needing a Week 17 win and watching the rest of the AFC playoff scenarios unfold.

Week 17 still matters

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With the six AFC playoff teams set, it’s odd to have so much still on the line going into Week 17, but the entire playoff landscape around the Steelers can still shift.

New England is currently the No. 1 seed in the AFC at 13-2, but a loss at Miami and a win for the Raiders against Denver would give Oakland the top seed, pushing the Patriots to the No. 2 seed. This is significant for the Steelers, obviously, because avoiding the Patriots as long as possible is huge in the playoffs, and with Derek Carr out with a broken leg for the Raiders, that team is suddenly the unit everyone wants to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Or, as might happen, the first round.

Kansas City can still win the AFC and earn a first-round bye. The Chiefs can beat San Diego and hope Denver beats the Raiders for the Chiefs to earn the No. 2 seed, locking up the No. 1 seed for New England with a win or loss.

A win for Miami over New England still would matter to the Dolphins, though, should the Chiefs lose, as Miami can get to the No. 5 seed, giving them a Wild Card game at Houston, not at Pittsburgh, who would then host the red-hot Chiefs. It’s ironic that Miami beat Pittsburgh while the Steelers beat the Chiefs this year, but there isn’t one person in the greater Pittsburgh area who would rather be playing the Chiefs in the playoffs than the Dolphins, Jay Ajayi notwithstanding.

AFC Playoff Quarterbacks

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Why are the Dolphins a more favorable playoff opponent? The same reason the Raiders are: Injuries to the quarterback.

Matt Moore took over for Miami two weeks ago after Ryan Tannehill went down with a season-ending injury. And while Moore has led the team to back-to-back wins, he’s not the starter for a reason.

Oakland lost their MVP candidate and are tasked with going into the last game of the season and the playoffs with Matt McGloin at quarterback. Here’s a list of the starting signal callers in the AFC playoffs. You tell me who you’d rather face in January.

  • No. 1 (as of today) – New England: Tom Brady
  • No. 2 – Oakland: Matt McGloin
  • No. 3 – Pittsburgh: Ben Roethlisberger
  • No. 4 – Houston: Tom Savage
  • No. 5 – Kansas City: Alex Smith
  • No. 6 – Miami: Matt Moore

Savage replaced Brock Osweiler last week, as Houston has struggled to find consistency at the position. McGloin and Moore are being asked to simply not lose games in the playoffs and while Alex Smith rejuvenated his career in Kansas City, he may be asked to do the same for the Chiefs this postseason. Smith is the third most seasoned quarterback in the AFC playoffs, but in five games, he is 2-3 in his career.

Roethlisberger is 11-6 all time in the playoffs, though just one win since the Steelers’ last trip to the Super Bowl after the 2010 season.

Brady is 22-9 in the playoffs. Yep.

First-round opponents (and beyond)

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Who knows what to make of Denver now that they’re out of contention, but if Oakland wins in Week 17, that would clinch a bye for the Raiders, even without Carr, pushing Kansas City to the No. 5 seed and Miami, likely, to the No 6 slot. That scenario would give New England and Oakland byes, with Kansas City playing Houston and the Steelers hosting Miami.

Should Oakland lose and Kansas City win, New England and the Chiefs would have byes, Oakland would face Houston and Miami would come to Pittsburgh.

The only way the Steelers won’t host the Dolphins is if Miami beats New England and Kansas City loses to the Chargers. Strange things have happened this year, but the Patriots haven’t lost with Brady under center this season and the Chargers just lost to the Browns, so regardless of who wins the AFC West, there’s a better-than-decent chance the Steelers will get the Dolphins in the Wild Card round.

Ajayi torched the Steelers defense in Week 6 to the tune of 200 yards and two scores, but that game was in Miami. Things should be different, this time. Pittsburgh, with a win, would then face the AFC West winner on the road before a potential match-up with New England in the AFC title game.

A lot of that, though, is based on New England winning, which will lock them up as the top seed and guarantee the Dolphins are the sixth seed. It may feel odd, but there should be a lot of Patriots fans in Allegheny County this coming weekend. If only for a day.

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