Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
With four weeks left in the 2012 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers still have the inside track to the playoffs, but they're not out of the woods just yet.
The Steelers somewhat surprising 23-20 victory over Baltimore on Sunday may not have done much for their prospects in the AFC North, but it did knock the Ravens out of the second seed in the AFC (as of right now, anyway), and if the playoffs started this coming week, Pittsburgh would be preparing for another trip to M&T Bank Stadium, and we'd be losing our minds with anticipation.
But before we can talk about Pittsburgh's potential postseason match-ups, there's still the unfinished business of four regular season games, and even though the Steelers still hold the inside track on at least the sixth seed in the AFC, they're not in the clear just yet. However, thanks to that epic win, along with some other results around the AFC, Pittsburgh's path to the postseason is a little clearer as it prepares for a date with the Chargers this Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.
Much like last week, I'll go over the obstacles that lie ahead for the Steelers as they try to navigate their way to a third straight trip to the postseason, and, once again, I'll break the categories down into teams, conference records and injuries.
Let's start with the teams first:
I figured I'd lump these three teams together since they don't really pose much of a threat as of right now, and the only way they'd be a danger to the Black and Gold's playoff chances is if Pittsburgh had a meltdown on par with its late season collapse in 2009. All three currently sit at 5-7, two games out of the playoff picture with four weeks left and certainly don't control their own fate. Even if a team emerges from the pack and runs the table, chances are, it's going to need a lot of good fortune to sneak into the postseason.
Of the three teams, I'd give New York the strongest chance of winning out. The Jets close-out the season with games at Jacksonville, Tennessee and Buffalo, sandwiched around a home game with the Chargers. Of course, even if New York finishes tied with the Steelers at 9-7, Pittsburgh would still get the playoff nod based on its 27-10 victory over the Jets in Week 2.
Let's get to the real threats, shall we?
The way things are shaking out at the moment, the battle for the two wild card spots in the AFC will be a three-way fight involving the Steelers, Colts and Bengals.
The 2012 Colts continue to be a huge story, and the latest chapter just saw them come from 12 points down in the closing moments to pull out a last-second 35-33 victory over the Lions in Week 13. Right now, Indianapolis holds the fifth seed in the AFC with an 8-4 record. The Colts host the Titans this week, followed by consecutive road games at Houston and Kansas City. Indianapolis closes out the regular season with a home game against a Texans' squad that more than likely will have the AFC South and number one seed wrapped up and will probably be looking to rest its key starters.
The Bengals won their fourth straight game on Sunday and, at 7-5, are still very much alive for a wild card berth. However, since Cincinnati lost to the Steelers in Week 7, Pittsburgh currently holds the upper-hand in terms of tiebreakers, and the only way the Bengals can change that is with a victory at Heinz Field on December 23rd. If that were to happen, a tie between the two division rivals would then be decided by AFC North records--the Steelers are now 2-2 in the AFC North and the Bengals are 1-3. Cincinnati hosts the Cowboys this week, followed by a trip to Philadelphia in Week 15, before coming to Pittsburgh for that potential "winner-takes-all" match-up in Week 16. The Bengals then finish out their schedule at home against Baltimore in Week 17.
Sunday's victory in Baltimore not only gave Pittsburgh a 2-2 record in the AFC North Division, the win improved its troublesome conference record to 4-5. Still not great, and something that could potentially hinder the team's playoff chances if it came down to a three or four-way tie. The Bengals' victory in San Diego pushed their conference record to 5-5, while the Colts currently sit at 5-3 in the AFC. However, as I understand it, when it comes to three or four-way ties, the NFL breaks ties within a division before anything else, so the only way a three-way tie involving the Colts and Bengals would eliminate the Steelers is if they not only lost to Cincinnati in Week 16 but also finished third in the AFC North. As long as Pittsburgh finishes ahead of the Bengals in the division, the team would get the nod for a playoff spot if it came down to a three-way tie that includes Cincinnati. Now, when it comes to a potential fifth seed, that might be a little harder to obtain. If Indianapolis finishes out the year 2-2, the Steelers could grab that fifth seed if they run the table. However, if the two teams finish with the same record, it would then come down to conference marks. A 2-2 finish by the Colts would make them 10-6 and 7-5 in the AFC. The best conference record Pittsburgh can hope for right now is 7-5, so if the Steelers go 3-1 down the stretch and one of those losses is within the AFC, they would lose out against Indianapolis, at least with regards to playoff positioning.
The latest health problem facing the Steelers is the ankle injury suffered by cornerback Ike Taylor during the first series of the game in Baltimore on Sunday. Nothing is official at this point, but according to several reports, the injury could keep Taylor out for at least the remainder of the regular season.