There is no question times are tough in Steeler Nation right now. Pittsburgh is battered, bruised and on a two-game losing streak heading into a tough Week 13 match-up with the Ravens. The good news is the Steelers are currently 6-5 and hold the inside spot for the sixth seed in the AFC.
There are some who are in the camp of "Why even bother making the playoffs? We're going to lose anyhow!" That very well may be true--if the playoffs began today, the Steelers would open up on the road against the Patriots (yikes!)--but the great thing about the postseason is you just don't know what can happen once your favorite team makes the tournament, and that's why the playoffs are always a fun and joyful experience.
Therefore, if you're in the camp of "The Steelers can beat anybody in the NFL, even with Charlie Batch and/or Byron Leftwich as our quarterback," I must say, you're dreaming, but you're probably the ideal candidate to read about the possible obstacles that lie ahead as Pittsburgh looks to capture its third straight trip to the postseason.
There are three obstacles that I see, and they are teams, conference record, and injuries.
Let's start with the teams:
Once Emmanuel Sanders turned the football over for an eighth time on the last play of the Steelers' ugly 20-14 defeat in Cleveland on Sunday, I immediately began to root for the Ravens in their game against San Diego. No, I wasn't that drunk, it's just that the loss put Pittsburgh 2 1/2 games back of the Ravens at that very moment, and even with a San Diego victory, the Steelers would have still been two games back in the AFC North with only five to play. And on top of that, they'd have to deal with a Chargers' team with a 5-6 record, and we all know how well they play in December. Fortunately, Ray Rice managed to pick up a first down late in the game off of a check down pass on 4th and 29, and Baltimore would go on to win in overtime, effectively putting San Diego's playoff hopes on life support at 4-7. Even if the Chargers somehow manage to win their last five games--including a win over Pittsburgh in Week 14--they'd still be on the outside looking in if the Steelers manage to win four more games. San Diego hosts the Bengals this week, followed by that aforementioned trip to Pittsburgh, followed by a home game against the Panthers, a trip to New York to take on the Jets in Week 16, and the Chargers finish out the year with a home-game against the Raiders.
The Dolphins haven't been mentioned much as a possible playoff threat to Pittsburgh, but Miami is quietly 5-6. Fortunately for the Steelers, Miami's opponents down the stretch include the Patriots (twice) and a trip to San Francisco. I doubt the Dolphins will run the table, so I don't think we'll have to worry about them very much.
Surprisingly, the Bengals have won three games in a row and are now tied with Pittsburgh at 6-5. Fortunately, the Steelers won a game in Cincinnati in Week 7 that proved to be the catalyst for a four-game winning streak and also gave them a tiebreaker advantage (at least right now). As far as the Bengals go, Pittsburgh still controls its own destiny because the two teams will meet again at Heinz Field in Week 16. If the Steelers defeat Cincinnati again, even if the two teams finish out the year with the same record, Pittsburgh would get the nod for a playoff spot based on the head-to-head tiebreaker. If the Bengals were to win and the two teams finish with the same record, Pittsburgh could still earn a trip to the playoffs based on a better record within the division--right now the Steelers are 1-2 in the AFC North and Cincinnati is 1-3. In addition to the trip to Pittsburgh in Week 16, the Bengals have two more road games to finish out the season--at San Diego in Week 13 and at Philadelphia in Week 15. Cincinnati also has a home game against the Cowboys in Week 14 and finishes out the year at home against the Ravens in Week 17.
After only winning two games a season ago, the Colts are the surprise of football this season behind first year quarterback Andrew Luck and interim head coach Bruce Arians, filling in for Chuck Pagano while he battles leukemia. Indianapolis is currently 7-4 and the fifth seed in the AFC. If the Steelers and Colts finish with the same record, the Colts could get the nod for a better seed based on conference record--Indianapolis is currently 5-3 in the AFC and Pittsburgh is 3-5.
It would be dangerous for the Steelers to wind up in a three or four way tie at the end of the year. As I just illustrated, Pittsburgh would lose out on a tiebreaker with the Colts based on their record within the AFC. In addition to that, the Chargers are currently 4-4 in the AFC and the Bengals are 4-5. Any three-way tie involving San Diego and Cincinnati could prove to be fatal. The NFL doesn't always break three or four way ties on head-to-head match-ups. More than likely, conference records would come into play, and a five-game winning streak to finish out the year would make the Chargers 8-4 in the AFC, and the Steelers would then be no better than 6-6. If the Bengals go 3-2 down the stretch--including wins over the Steelers and Ravens--they would be 9-7 and 6-6 in the AFC. If the Steelers go 3-2 down the stretch--including losses to San Diego and Cincinnati--they would be 9-7 and 5-7 in the AFC. Not good. To sum it up, ties are bad for the Steelers if they involve more than one other team.
This is an on-going problem for the Steelers, obviously, and there isn't much sense in going into all the details, because if you're a fan of the team, you know about the plethora of injuries Pittsburgh's had to deal with. Bottomline, if the Steelers don't get healthy soon, every other obstacle may not even matter.