A win over Oakland could make Steelers playoff dreams more tangible

Cary Emondson-US PRESSWIRE

The Steelers are on a modest roll, thanks to a two-game winning streak that followed a four game losing streak to open the year. Right now, at 2-4, the odds of making the playoffs (or at least playing meaningful football in December) still seem slim. But a win over the Raiders on Sunday, and suddenly, playoff talk might not be so unrealistic.

If optimism was stock, Steelers fans would be buying it by the bunches right now, thanks to a two-game winning streak that followed a four-game slide to start the 2013 NFL season.

Not only are the Steelers winning again, Ben Roethlisberger looks like a sanely efficient quarterback who hasn't turned the football over on this continent since September 22; the defense is playing so well, it actually looks like a unit that isn't old and slow; and heck, the "smash mouth" era may be back after rookie Le'Veon Bell churned out 93 very consistent yards on the ground in the thrilling Week 7 victory over the hated Ravens a week ago.

A record of 2-4 still may not look very healthy on paper, and it is true that no team has reached the postseason after starting out 0-4 since the Chargers did it in 1992, but there is no law that says it can't be done. Pittsburgh missed the playoffs last year after starting out 6-3, and while such an occurrence may not be as rare as an 0-4 team making the postseason, it's an example that nothing is etched in stone.

Unlike college football, style-points really don't matter in the NFL; it's all about the math. If the Steelers find a way to win anywhere from nine to 11 games this season, they'd have at least a fighting chance of making the postseason.

Don't get me wrong, the odds are extremely long. In fact, as of right now, Pittsburgh is tied for the third worst record in the AFC. However, seven of the teams in front of the Steelers have records of either 4-3, 3-3 or 3-4, so, much like a year ago, mediocrity appears to be in vogue in the junior conference.

With the Bengals at 5-2, complete with a victory over Pittsburgh in Week 2, you'll have to assume that the wild card route will have to be traveled if the playoffs are still a realistic destination. And if you assume one of the two wild card spots in the AFC will be taken by either the Broncos or Chiefs, that leaves one spot up for grabs, and very little margin for error for our beloved Black and Gold.

And that means a victory over the Raiders at the "Black Hole" on Sunday is vital. Would a loss be a death blow? No, but it would lead to several articles titled "The number of teams who have made the playoffs after starting out 2-5," and you're probably not going to like those stories very much.

So what makes the game in Oakland any more vital than the one next week in New England? It's a little thing called momentum. Right now, the Steelers and the fans are starting to believe. A victory over the Raiders, and 3-4 doesn't look so bad.

The World Champion Ravens are 3-4, and while there certainly is acknowledgement that they are struggling, would anyone be surprised if they made the playoffs? No, and that's because Baltimore didn't start out 0-4.

If Pittsburgh can make it to 3-4 after such a horrendous start, those playoff pipe-dreams would suddenly seem more realistic. And with games left against the Ravens, Bengals and Browns (twice), along with home contests against Miami, Detroit and Buffalo, I believe there would be a real tangible reason to have hope over the last nine games of the season.

How much would a victory over the Silver and Black increase Pittsburgh's playoff chances? Obviously, at 3-4, the Steelers chances would simply go from "last rights" to "critical," but at least it would be an upgrade.

The Steelers are 2.5 point favorites, and even though both squads appear to be evenly matched on paper, these are the kinds of games that teams with top-notch quarterbacks usually pull out. Pittsburgh has one in Roethlisberger, while the Raiders have a very unknown commodity in Terrelle Pryor.

The fans at O.co Coliseum, where Pittsburgh has lost in its two previous guest appearances, may treat Sunday's clash like their Super Bowl (or at the very least, a very scary Halloween party), but for the Steelers, they need to treat it as just another leg on their journey back to relevancy.

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