The good news after Sunday's disastrous meltdown at the hands of San Diego is that the Steelers' playoff path is still on the same course it was on last week (although, the optimism level in Steeler Nation has certainly been downgraded from a feverish Black and Gold to a deary blue).
Thanks to other Week 14 losses suffered by AFC North foes--most notably, the Bengals--Pittsburgh still controls its own postseason fate with three weeks remaining in the regular season, and with victories over the Cowboys, Bengals and Browns to end the year, a playoff spot is guaranteed. However, there are still obstacles that lie ahead, and as we all witnessed this past Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field, the Steelers (7-6) certainly aren't guaranteed anything at this point. As always, I'll break-down the teams, conference records and injuries that may possibly hinder Pittsburgh's playoff chances as the team prepares for a Week 15 date in Dallas.
After their Week 14 victory in Jacksonville, the Jets currently sit at 6-7 and one game behind the Steelers and Bengals in the playoff race. New York travels to play the Titans next Monday night, followed by a home game with the Chargers in Week 16. The Jets finish out the regular season with a trip to Buffalo. The Steelers would win any head to head tiebreaker with New York by virtue of their Week 2 victory at Heinz Field. The only way Pittsburgh would be in trouble with the Jets is if it came down to a three-way tie, and I'll touch on that when I go over conference records.
The Colts just continue to roll and are now 9-4 after their 27-23 victory over Tennessee on Sunday. Indianapolis currently holds the fifth seed in the AFC and has a two-game lead on the nearest competitors in the wild card race. And believe it or not, thanks to the Texans blow-out loss in New England Monday night, the Colts actually control their own fate with regards to an AFC South crown. The Colts play Houston (11-2) two times over the last three weeks, so if they win out, they will win the division, and maybe even earn a first round bye.
Like Pittsburgh, the Bengals are 7-6 after their last-second loss to Dallas on Sunday. Cincinnati currently sits in seventh place, thanks to the Week 7 loss at the hands of the Steelers on Sunday Night Football. The Bengals travel to Philadelphia this Thursday to take on a 4-9 Eagles squad before coming to Heinz Field on December 23rd for that much-anticipated Week 16 match-up. If the Steelers win two games down the stretch and one of those victories is against Cincinnati, they will win any head-to-head tiebreaker between the two division foes. However, if the Bengals defeat the Steelers in Week 16 and the two teams end the season with the same record, the next tiebreaker would be division record--the Steelers currently sit at 2-2 in the AFC North and Cincinnati is 1-3--and if the two teams are still tied, it would then go to best record against common opponents, and then to best record within the AFC.
After Sunday's loss to San Diego, the Steelers already mediocre conference record has become downright bad at 4-6. Thankfully, there isn't a ton of competition for that last wild card spot in the AFC, and the only real way Pittsburgh would be in trouble is if a wild card spot came down to a three-way tie. Assuming the Steelers finish ahead of Cincinnati in the AFC North, they could still possibly be the odd team out in a three-way tie involving the Colts and Jets. If Indianapolis were to lose out, the Jets win out, and the Steelers win two of three, all three teams would sit at 9-7, and the tiebreaker would then be conference records. Under that scenario, New York would be 7-5 in the AFC, the Colts would be 6-6, and if the Steelers lone loss is against the Cowboys this coming Sunday, their conference record would also be 6-6. The Jets would obviously get the nod for the fifth seed, while the tie between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh would then go to best record vs. common opponents. Of course, it's a bit far-fetched at this point, since the Colts have so much to play for and another victory (or loss by the Jets) would wipe that scenario right out.
After struggling with a knee issue over the past few weeks, it appears that Willie Colon is once again done for the season and will be replaced by Maurkice Pouncey, who will move to left guard while Doug Legursky takes his place at center. As for other injuries, in a column in Monday's Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Gene Collier mentioned an interesting stat involving Ike Taylor, who missed Sunday's game with a fractured ankle: Over the last six games that Taylor was in the line-up, Pittsburgh's opponents were 16 for 76 on third down conversions. On Sunday, with Taylor out of the line-up, the Chargers were 12 of 22 on third down. Taylor's absence has obviously hurt the depth of the Steelers' secondary, as Cortez Allen moved up from nickel to start at corner on Sunday, while Curtis Brown took Allen's role in the slot and was victimized several times by San Diego and eventually replaced by Josh Victorian, who was signed off the practice squad just last week. It remains unclear at this point when Taylor will return to the line-up, but his presence, or lack thereof, could prove to be vital down the stretch.