Steelers Denied AFC North Title But Should have One More Shot at Ravens in Two Weeks

For the fourth time in five seasons with Mike Tomlin as head coach, the Pittsburgh Steelers qualified for the NFL playoffs. It's not often that you wind up as a wild card when you win 12 games, but that's the reality for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2011. After holding off the Cleveland Browns in Week 17, 13-9, Pittsburgh finished its season 12-4, the second consecutive season with 12 wins. The last and only time the most successful franchise in NFL history has posted back-to-back 12 win seasons was in 1978-1979. I don't need to remind you that the Steelers won their third and fourth Super Bowls of the decade in those two years.

12 wins weren't enough though to win even the division this season, as Baltimore claimed the AFC North championship with a 24-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. The Ravens earned the crown with 12 wins as well thanks to their season-sweep of Pittsburgh.

We'll go over the Steelers win in Cleveland later on Monday, but for now, a couple final quick thoughts. Firstly, congratulations to the Ravens on the divisional title. Rivalries are created and renwed most effectively when there's competitive balance between two teams that don't much like each other on the football field. Yes, the Steelers have dominated in the playoffs when it matters most, but the Ravens have perhaps learned from their previous shortcomings against Pittsburgh. They sure looked more competent against the black-and-gold in the two matchups this season.

We'll see though who emerges victorious when all the marbles are again at stake, because from where I'm sitting, the two rivals are likely to meet again in this year's playoffs.

Last week in a post about the various playoff scenarios for the Steelers, I wrote:

Again though, the Bengals could stumble this weekend and keep Pittsburgh in the No. 5 slot. Were that the case, Pittsburgh would likely win in Denver or Oakland and then learn their fate for the divisional round based on what happened in the 6 vs. 3 matchup. If it's Cincinnati or New York as the No. 6 seed, I'd take either over Houston. That would send the Jets/Bengals to New England for round two, and Pittsburgh to Baltimore. But if the Texans are facing Tennessee or Oakland, I'd take Houston to win which would send the lowest seeded remaining -- the Steelers -- to Foxboro.

Despite being fairly impressed with how Houston played in Week 17, nothing has changed for me in terms of me believing that either the Jets or the Bengals would take down the Texans in the wild card round next weekend. Losers of their past three, the Texans will enter this weekend feeling like they can't sink any worse than they already are. And that should help their mindset some. But unless their defense really performs at a high level, I don't see them winning this game with either a banged up Tyler Yates at quarterback, or with a immobile, rusty Jake Delhomme at the controls.

As for the Steelers? Well, let's just say that a first round playoff game couldn't get any easier. I'm sorry. Curse me for 'jinxing' things if you must. But this is a terrible Denver Broncos football team. Okay, fine. Not terrible. But not very good. Like, historically bad in the pantheon of playoff eligible teams. I don't even need to do the research. I'm sure there's a handful of woeful teams that qualified for the playoffs over the years, and I look forward to some of you older folks sharing stories about those teams. But in recent memory, I can't think of any playoff team that is as bad as this year's Broncos.

Their 8-8 record obviously speaks for itself, but without doing all my due diligence, I feel comfortable saying that no other 8-8 playoff team -- or even last year's 7-9 Seahawks team for that matter -- is as offensively challenged as Denver is.

Need proof? For the fourth time in eleven games that Tim Tebow has started, the Broncos failed to score a point in the first half in Sunday's 7-3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. It also added to the number of Tebow starts in which the Broncos have failed to score more than 3 points by intermission (6). That's not going to get it done in the National Football League.

The Broncos do not belong in the playoffs. Maybe I should find a better phrase than 'don't belong', because if there is one cliche that is true in this league, it's that 'you are who you are.' And the Broncos deserve lots of credit for being 8-8. However, two quick plays stand out as incredibly fluky that most certainly catapulted them to where they are today: the first is the Philip Rivers botched snap late in their early-season loss to Kansas City. All Rivers was trying to do was hand off to get the ball lined up on the right hash marks for the kicker. The second was Marion Barber of the Chicago Bears inexplicably not going down in bounds late in the Broncos miraculous come-from-behind win over Chicago at the height of Tebow-Mania.

I'm sorry, those plays are not suggestive of any sort of resolve, grit, clutch play, or whatever, from the Broncos. That's dumb luck. And even with those two fluky gifts, the Broncos still barely edged out the Chargers by one game in the tie-breaker that measures success against common opponents (6-6 for Denver vs. 5-7 for San Diego and Oakland).

Look, I realize that every team gets a win or two each year they shouldn't, and typically those are counterfeited by a couple of losses that perhaps shouldn't have wound up as L's That's life in the NFL, or in any sort of competition really.

But the Broncos? I don't think they had any of those 'counterfeit' losses this season. They went 5-2 in games decided by three points or fewer, with both losses coming in the early part of the season with Kyle Orton still at quarterback. The first, against Oakland in Week 1, was hardly a product of bad luck. The Broncos were down by 10 in the 4th quarter before a TD drive cut the deficit to 3 with just under four minutes to play. The second loss, two weeks later on the road in Nashville, was tougher to swallow. The Titans, who had struggled offensively for much of the contest, mustered a game-winning scoring drive in the fourth quarter. Denver certainly had its chances. They were stuffed on fourth down at the Titans goal line early in the fourth quarter, and then had a chance to kick a potential game-tying field goal in the final minute when Orton was intercepted to seal the deal.

Anyway, that's one game really at most.. In the other six losses not decided by three points or fewer, the Broncos were beat by the following margins: 26, 5, 35, 18, 26, 4. Three blowouts, and it would have been four if not for two fourth quarter TD drives in their 29-24 loss to San Diego in Week 5.

We'll get to the wild card matchup between Pittsburgh and Denver, scheduled for Sunday afternoon from Mile High Stadium on Sunday afternoon, as the week progresses, but going back to the original point of this post -- a potential rematch with Baltimore in the Divisional Round....

Who knows if Cincinnati will capitalize on a golden opportunity to win a playoff game against a battered and bruised Texans team that's ripe for the taking, even at home where they've been solid. I've been doing this too long to set myself up for extreme 'open mouth, insert foot' moments, but I have no problem saying that there is next to no chance that Pittsburgh doesn't do its part to set up the third tilt of the year by dusting Denver on the road next Sunday. The Steelers may make it closer than they should. Or, hell, Denver might play its conservative brand of small ball to keep the clock ticking and subsequently the game close extending into half number two, but once the final second has ticked off the clock in Denver, the Steelers will be advancing on to meet either Baltimore or New England.

Playoffs baby! Love it! Love this time of year! Go Steelers!

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