SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 19: Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers is seen during the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on December 19, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)
The odds are quite long for the Pittsburgh Steelers to clinch a bye for the postseason. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, not only do the injury-riddled Steelers need to win out, but they need lots of help along the way. Below, I will preview the obstacles that stand in the way of the Steelers earning that much coveted bye into the second round of the playoffs.
If the Steelers win out, the Ravens still must lose a game in order for Pittsburgh to clinch the AFC North. Baltimore owns a tiebreaker over Pittsburgh by way of a season sweep of the series. Baltimore finishes up at home against the lowly Browns this week, and then at Cincinnati to close out the regular season. Obviously, the Ravens are undefeated at home this year, so don't look for the Brownies to pull off the upset this week. However, the Bengals are currently 8-6 and could still be alive for a playoff spot in the final game. The Ravens could be playing for better position, but Cincy could be playing for their playoff lives.
Houston holds the tiebreaker over Pittsburgh because of their 17-10 defeat of the Steelers in week 4. Even if the Steelers win the division, they'll need Houston to lose a game down the stretch in order to earn a bye. The Texans play at the 1-13 Colts tomorrow night, and then finish up at home against the Tennessee Titans. Currently at 7-7, the Titans could still be alive for a playoff spot in the final week, but Houston manhandled Tennessee, 41-7, earlier in the year. Like the Steelers, the Texans are battling the injury bug and are down to using rookie quarterback T.J. Yates after Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart suffered season-ending injuries in back-to-back games. Stud receiver Andre Johnson has also been battling a hamstring injury since the Steeler game, and defensive end Mario Williams is lost for the year. The Texans clinched the first playoff spot in team history two weeks ago but fell flat at home to the Carolina Panthers just last week. It's hard to say if the Texans are just satisfied with making the playoffs for the first time, and if they really appreciate the importance of a bye.
New England Patriots
At 11-3, the Patriots are in the drivers seat for the number 1 seed in the AFC. However, the Steelers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Pats, and if the first two obstacles fall for the Steelers, they would have a shot at the number 1 seed if New England stumbles in one of their last two games. Unfortunately, the Patriots have scored 30+ plus points in six-straight games and seem to be running on all cylinders down the stretch (at least on offense). New England closes out their schedule at home against the Dolphins and Bills who are both 5-9. The Patriots took care of Miami in pretty easy fashion in week one, but they lost an exciting game at Buffalo to the Bills in week 4 on a last-second field goal. However, that was back when the Bills were playing exciting and inspired football. After getting off to a surprising hot start, the Bills have fallen back into their usual position as one of the worst teams in the league.
This has been another injury-filled season for the Steelers, and they just keep piling up as we head to the finish line. The latest casualties being Mewelde Moore's sprained knee and Rashard Mendenhall's sore ribs. When you couple those with injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey, as well as Lamar Woodley and even Troy Polamalu, the team, media and fans have been weighing the importance of having a bye vs. having the team's key players as close to 100% as possible when the postseason starts. The biggest injury, of course, is Big Ben's high ankle sprain. There are varying reports about what the Steelers will do with Big Ben over the last two games, and whether or not it's worth the risk to play him. The good news is the Steelers finish up at home against the Rams and on the road against the Browns. One would think the Steelers should still be able to handle their business no matter how they decide to handle their injury problems.
The final two weeks figure to be pretty intriguing, and with still an outside shot at at least a division title, it'll be interesting to see how the Steelers respond.