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How Important is it for the Steelers to Win Division and First Round Bye?

The 2011 NFL Playoffs are fast approaching. It's hard to believe that the regular season will conclude this coming Sunday. After what seemed like an impossibly long lockout this offseason, the return of football was especially welcomed and anticipated this September. Now, with the calendar set to turn to 2012, the end of football will soon be a reality once again for the fanbases of all but 12 teams.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are thankfully one of them, so we've at least got two more weeks of the comfortable routine of anticipation leading up to the black-and-gold's next game. Hopefully it's not until early February that we're done cheering on the Steelers for this season. We'll see.

So what's the 'best' route to a return trip to the Super Bowl for the six-time champs? The obvious answer is the Steelers beating the Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Ravens losing on the road to the Bengals, and the New England Patriots losing to the Buffalo Bills for the second time this season. That would result in the Steelers finishing as the No. 1 seed with guaranteed home field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs. Here's what the Steelers' road to the SB would likely look like if they finished as the No. 1 seed.

  • Wild Card Round: Bye
  • Divisional Round: vs. No. 5 seed Ravens ; vs. No. 6 seed Bengals/Jets/Raiders/Titans ; vs. No. 4 seed Broncos/Raiders

Here's the outlook were the Steelers to finish as the No. 2 seed -- beating Cleveland, Baltimore losing to Cincinnati, but New England holding on to the No. 1 seed with a Week 17 win.

  • Wild Card Round: Bye
  • Divisional Round: vs. No. 3 seed Houston ; vs. No 4 seed Broncos/Raiders ; vs. No. 5 seed Ravens

Let's all concede that it would be very nice to get a rematch with the Houston Texans in the divisional round. That would require the Texans to beat the No. 6 wild card in the opening round. Not a given considering they're starting a rookie quarterback. Were that No. 6 seed to beat Houston -- be it Cincinnati, Tennessee, Oakland or the Jets -- the Ravens would probably be heading to Heinz Field. That would be pretty sweet, I must admit. I can't see Baltimore losing to the AFC West winner two weekends from now were they to lose to Cincinnati this week and relinquish the divisional crown on the final week of the season.

Finally, the Steelers are guaranteed to finish no worse than as the No. 5 seed, so here's what their road looks like if they do in fact finish as the top wild card.

  • Wild Card Round: at No. 4 seed Denver/Oakland
  • Divisional Round: at No. 2 seed Baltimore ; at No. 1 seed New England

Obviously anything can happen in a one-game situation, particularly on the road, but let's just say that opening round game in either Denver or Oakland does not strike too much fear into me. That's what Pittsburgh would face as the No. 5 seed. In fact, that proposition maybe convinces Mike Tomlin that Ben Roethlisberger should rest this weekend against the Browns. Charlie Batch should be able to lead the Steelers to victory this Sunday; and if not, if it means that Big Ben is guaranteed to be healthier for the playoffs, then so what?

Most Likely Outcomes:

It's hard to be too bold with any prognostications about this week because, quite frankly, I think it's about a 50-50 chance that Cincinnati knocks off Baltimore. If that is in fact the case, the Steelers likely wind up as the No. 2 seed unless New England were to lose at home to the Buffalo Bills. Sure, the Bills beat New England earlier in the year, but it goes without saying that the Bills have regressed and the Pats have improved since their early season matchup.

If Pittsburgh does end up as the No. 2 seed, I'd say the most likely scenario is that they host the Ravens in the divisional round, with the Bengals beating Houston in round one and, as the No. 6 seed, then traveling to New England. I'd put Baltimore's chances of beating either Denver or Oakland somewhere between 80 and 90 percent.

Again though, the Bengals could stumble this weekend and keep Pittsburgh in the No. 5 slot. Were that the case, Pittsburgh would likely win in Denver or Oakland and then learn their fate for the divisional round based on what happened in the 6 vs. 3 matchup. If it's Cincinnati or New York as the No. 6 seed, I'd take either over Houston. That would send the Jets/Bengals to New England for round two, and Pittsburgh to Baltimore. But if the Texans are facing Tennessee or Oakland, I'd take Houston to win which would send the lowest seeded remaining -- the Steelers -- to Foxboro.

I would love for the Steelers to get another shot at the Ravens -- be it at Heinz or in hostile territory in Baltimore -- but I can't say I'm looking forward to a road matchup in New England in the divisional round. So I guess that means I'm not only for the Bengals to win this Ravens, but for the other scenarios that would put the Jets in or even the Bengals if they lose to Baltimore.

Isn't it great being a Steelers fan and having these types of entirely pointless but extremely fun conversations most every winter? Go Steelers!