We have to be careful not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but the playoff picture is starting to come into focus. Here's a look at the AFC playoff picture and some of the most likely scenarios. There are 16 teams in the AFC, and only 3 are effectively out of the playoff race: CIN, KC, and OAK. A couple others would have to put together rather incredible runs to make the WC: HOU, CLE, JAC. San Diego still has a shot at beating out Denver for the division, although they have an uphill climb.
We should probably pencil in Tennessee for the #1 seed at this point - can you say 2004 Steelers anyone? The #2 seed in more interesting. DEN, PIT, BAL, and all 4 teams in the East have a good shot at it. That's right, Miami has a good shot at a bye week a year after barely eluding 0-16 in 2007. Just looking at the number of teams and the schedules, it's most probable that one of the teams out of the East goes on a run and secures a bye with a 12-4 record. Since that division is so balanced, though, it's also very possible that they beat each other up, leaving a bye up for grabs. Whoever wins the West will probably end up as the #4 seed.
The Colts are the most likely candidate for the top WC spot. They're 6-4, own tie breakers against BAL, PIT, and NWE, have a fairly easy schedule, and finish at home against the Titans, who will surely have clinched everything by then. The #6 seed will probably come from the East, although whoever finishes second in the North will have a shot as well.
Now that we've covered the general picture, here's a look at our path to the playoffs:
First, a quick look at the Steelers schedule. We've played decently well since the "tough" part of our schedule began with 2 close losses, one close win, and one very convincing win. The schedule doesn't get any easier: after a Thursday night Bengals game, we play 4 winning teams in a row, including 3 on the road. We finish at home against Cleveland. Just based on what we've done so far this year I'd say we should end at least 10-6, we have a good chance of being 11-5, and we're not very likely to make it to 12-4. 11-5 is realistic because it has us going .500 against winning teams while beating up on the lesser foes.
Obviously job one is winning our division. Seeing the Ravens get embarrassed by the Giants was a welcome sight. Their schedule is about par with ours from here on out. They are 1 game back and 1 divisional game back from us, so if they beat us in Baltimore, it could completely knot up the division. Point differential (which favors us right now) could suddenly become important. That game is the biggest one left on our schedule.
If we do win the division, getting the bye week is important. It's an extra week of rest for a banged up team, it's avoiding dangerous WC teams in the first round, and it means at most we'll have one road game in the playoffs. With our OL, that's a big deal. The Broncos don't seem poised to make a big push, but the Jets, Patriots, and Dolphins are playing well against easy schedules. We want all those teams to lose as much as possible (even rooting for the Browns tonight), and we really need to beat the Patriots.
If we don't win the division, we'll still probably make it to 10-6. With our 2 (at least) NFC losses we have a good conference record, so tie breaker situations favor us. The Colts are a team to worry about, since they beat us. Aside from the Baltimore game, the one in New England is the most important.