Breaking down the Steelers' playoff chances

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers have a more than realistic shot at making the playoffs, despite their 5-7 record (at least in terms of the math). Any scenario involving Pittsburgh reaching the postseason includes winning out (and a four-game winning streak). How realistic that actually is remains to be seen. However, just in-case it happens, I've decided to break down what has to happen for the Steelers playoff dreams to become a reality.

Believe it or not, the Steelers (5-7) still have a fairly realistic chance of making the playoffs with four games left. As Neal Coolong pointed out, Pittsburgh is currently in the ninth spot in the AFC and a game back of the Ravens (6-6) for the sixth seed in the AFC.

Of course, when I say "realistic" that's in terms of  the simple mathematics. In just about any scenario the Steelers have of reaching the playoffs, it would involve them winning-out to reach 9-7, and that would mean a four-game winning streak. How realistic is that scenario? You decide.

For this week, I'll concentrate on the three teams currently ahead of Pittsburgh for that final playoff spot and what the Steelers need to do to make their (and our) playoff dreams become a reality:

Tennessee Titans

As it currently stands, the Titans (5-7) are in the eighth spot in the AFC by virtue of their 16-9 victory over Pittsburgh in Week 1, and as a consequence of that, the Steelers simply can't win a two-way tiebreaker. The good news, however, is that Tennessee travels to play the 10-2 Broncos this week. As for the remainder of the Titans' schedule, it's not particularly daunting. In its final three games, Tennessee plays host to the Cardinals and Texans, sandwiched around a road date at Jacksonville.

The Steelers obviously need to finish at least one game ahead of Tennessee in the standings so the head-to-head tie-breaker doesn't come into play. If there's a three or four way tie involving non-division teams, head-to-head only comes into play if one team has swept the others or vice versa. Otherwise, conference marks are the first tie-breaker, and right now, both the Steelers and Tennessee are 4-5, each with three AFC games left on  the schedule.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins (6-6) are currently the seventh seed, as they prepare for their Week 14 match-up at Heinz Field this Sunday. Obviously, if the Steelers win, they'll be tied with Miami and be ahead in the standings, by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker. However, if at the end of the season, it would come down to a three-way tie that would include the Titans, then it would switch to conference records. Right now, the Dolphins have a 5-3 mark in the AFC, with four conference games remaining--road games at Pittsburgh and Buffalo and homes games against the Patriots and Jets.

If the Steelers defeat Miami this week, and the final playoff spot comes down to those two teams, Pittsburgh would advance to the postseason based on the head-to-head tiebreaker. However, if the Dolphins win three of four to finish the year at 9-7, they would have an 8-4 record in the AFC, while the best Pittsburgh can finish is 7-5. If the Titans also finish with a 9-7 record, and the final playoff spot comes down to those three teams, Miami would get the nod based on conference record.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens (6-6) are currently the sixth seed in the AFC and control their own playoff fate. If Baltimore wins out, a playoff spot is assured, based on a victory over the Dolphins earlier in the season. Pittsburgh could still jump up and overtake the Ravens, however. Baltimore is currently 3-2 in the AFC North, with one division game remaining against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 17. Because the Steelers split their games with Baltimore, the next tiebreaker would be record within the division. If Pittsburgh wins out, that would mean victories over the Bengals and Browns and a 4-2 mark in the AFC North. If the Ravens lose their remaining division game, they'll finish 3-3. Therefore, if the Steelers and Baltimore both finish at 9-7, with the Ravens loss coming against the Bengals, Pittsburgh would earn the final playoff spot, thanks to a better division record. If both the Ravens and Pittsburgh finish with 9-7 overall records and 4-2 division records, the next tie-breaker would then involve common opponents, and that's a little further down the road for this article's purposes.

Miami would lose out on any 9-7 three-way tie involving the Steelers and Baltimore because the tie would have to be broken within the AFC North first, and then after that, it would go back to head-to-head.

If, however, the Titans were involved in a three-way tie with the Steelers and Ravens, Pittsburgh would be in trouble. Baltimore currently has a 6-4 AFC mark, with two games remaining. If the Ravens finish at 9-7 and split their final two AFC games, they would finish 7-5 in the conference. If both Pittsburgh and Tennessee win out, they, too, would finish at 7-5 in the conference. Under that scenario, the tie would be broken within the AFC North first. After that, if I'm understanding things correctly, it would then go back to head-to-head. If it came down to head-to-head between the Titans and Steelers, Pittsburgh, again, would lose out.

As you can see, some of these scenarios are quite complicated, but none of them will probably matter for the Steelers if  they don't win out. With that in mind, I'll continue to break this stuff down each week (as best as I can, of course) as long as the home team remains relevant in the playoff picture.

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