I can't remember a more satisfying regular season victory for the Steelers in recent memory than their thrilling 24-20 triumph in New York on Sunday. Pittsburgh not only defeated the World Champion Giants, they pretty much dominated them on their home turf of MetLife Stadium.
After the victory, their third in a row after a 2-3 start to the season, Tony Dungy declared the Steelers back! And at 5-3 and only a game behind Baltimore in the AFC North, there is no question about it. Despite Pittsburgh's position in the standings, with five division games remaining in the second half of the season--including two against the Ravens in a four week span--everything is lining up quite nicely for a "control your own destiny" scenario.
The Steelers have gotten well in all phases of the game the past three weeks--improved running game, dominant defense and even better special teams play--and there is no doubt they are once again a major player in the AFC.
Speaking of the AFC, the only thing that may come back to haunt Pittsburgh come playoff time is its record within the conference, which, as of right now, stands at 2-3.
Of the Steelers five wins so far this year, three of them have come via victories over NFC teams. I'm not an expert on playoff tiebreakers, but I have to believe "wins against teams from a different conference" is pretty low on the totem pole. In fact, after surfing the NFL's site for playoff tiebreakers, I couldn't even find anything about it. I'm sure it could fall under "common opponents," but that would only apply if the NFL had to break an AFC North tie between Pittsburgh and the Ravens, since teams within the same division play the same inter-conference opponents each season.
If the playoffs started today, the Steelers would be the sixth seed, which is something I would certainly take. However, the team sitting right behind them with a 4-4 record is San Diego. And right at this moment, the Chargers have a 4-2 record in the AFC.
The Steelers play San Diego in December, so AFC records would be thrown out the window, and the head-to-head tiebreaker would come into play for any wild card spot.
However, when three teams or more are battling for a wild card spot, head-to-head match-ups are usually immaterial, and a team's conference record is used to sort out a postseason berth.
As I said, the Steelers have two games with Baltimore in the second half, and a sweep would go a long way toward securing a division championship. But, Pittsburgh hasn't swept the Ravens since the 2008 season, so a split between the two close rivals is probably a more likely scenario.
The last two seasons, the Steelers and Ravens had matching 12-4 marks, and they alternated between winning the AFC North and earning a wild card berth. With such a razor's edge between the two teams in recent years, conference games could prove to be vital even in determining a division champion--Baltimore is currently 5-1 in the AFC.
As for the playoff picture as a whole. There are only two teams in the AFC with less than three losses, so we're more than likely going to see a very jumbled playoff picture right up until Week 17. One of the things that kept the Steelers out of the playoffs in '09 was their 6-6 record within the AFC. Despite each finishing with the same 9-7 record as Pittsburgh, the Ravens and Jets were able to secure wild card berths based on better conference records.
Starting Monday night against the Chiefs, the Steelers play seven of their remaining eight games against AFC opponents. Pittsburgh finished 9-3 within the AFC each of the past two seasons, but with three losses in the conference already, another loss or two--despite what the team's overall record may eventually be--could prove to be fatal come playoff time.
If the Steelers repeated their 5-3 record down the stretch, including an NFC loss to the Cowboys, they would finish the season 10-6 overall, but only 7-5 in the AFC.
In 2005, Pittsburgh made the playoffs as a wild card despite only having a 7-5 conference record, but that's a scenario that's very unlikely to play out again.
The best path to the playoffs is obviously a division championship, but just in case they have to go the wild card route, it's probably in the Steelers' best interest to vastly improve their AFC record in the second half of the season.