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AFC playoff picture: Steelers still in control of own fate, but there are no more tomorrows

Despite losing four of their past five games, the 7-7 Steelers still control their playoff fate. However, a loss this Sunday to Cincinnati at Heinz Field would spell the end of Pittsburgh's playoff hopes.

Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE

As crazy as it is to believe, the Steelers are not only still alive for the playoffs as they get ready for their Week 16 match-up against Cincinnati this Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field, they're STILL in control of their own fate. Right now, it's pretty simple: If Pittsburgh wins its remaining two games, the team will advance to the postseason as at least the sixth seed in the AFC.

There are obviously questions as to whether or not the Steelers (7-7) deserve a spot in the playoffs, especially after four losses in their last five games. Fortunately, the NFL isn't like college football. Style points don't matter, and it's really all about math and tiebreakers when it comes to who makes the postseason dance.

Like I've done the past few weeks, I'll breakdown what stands in the way of the Steelers and a playoff spot, but I'll spend more time talking about some of the teams who are still fighting it out in the AFC and how those confusing little tiebreakers such as conference record, record against common opponents and even strength of victory factor in--yes, things are so complicated this year, strength of victory could actually weigh heavily into who makes the playoffs.

Miami Dolphins

As AFC mediocrity would have it, the 6-8 Dolphins are still alive for a playoff spot. However, as you might guess, in addition to winning their final two games, they also need a ton of help. Even though the Jets were eliminated from playoff contention this past Monday, they would still win a tiebreaker over Miami thanks to record against common opponents. Therefore, New York (6-8) still needs to lose one more time. Also, the Steelers and Bengals must both finish at 8-8. This would create a three-way tie, and the Dolphins would get the nod based on a better conference record--under this scenario, both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati would finish 5-7 in the AFC, and Miami would finish 6-6. The Dolphins close out the regular season with a home game against the Bills in Week 16 before going on the road to play a New England team that may or may not have much to play for with regards to playoff positioning.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts lost out on a chance to win the AFC South after falling to Houston 29-17 in Week 15. However, at 9-5, Indianapolis is still in great shape and can clinch a postseason berth with a victory over the 2-12 Chiefs this Sunday or a Pittsburgh loss to the Bengals. But if the Colts finish the year with three-straight losses to end the season and the Steelers win out, Pittsburgh would win the tiebreaker over Indianapolis by virtue of strength of victory. The two teams would obviously have the same overall record, and since they would not have played one another during the regular season, head-to-head would be out of the equation. Next tiebreaker is record within the conference, and both teams would be 6-6. The third tiebreaker is common opponents, and both would be 3-2 in that scenario. After that, it would fall to strength of victory, and strength of victory is the combined winning percentage of opponents each team has defeated. As of right now, the combined record of teams Indianapolis has defeated is 45-67 and for the Steelers, it's 45-53. That's obviously going to change over the last two weeks, but as you can see, Pittsburgh is comfortably ahead in this category, so if the two teams end the season at 9-7, the Steelers would have the upper-hand, at least in terms of earning a higher seed.

Cincinnati Bengals

It's pretty simple for the 8-6 Bengals this week: If they walk out of Heinz Field with a victory, they clinch a playoff spot, Pittsburgh would officially be eliminated, and the six-team field would be set as the Colts would also be in the dance no matter what happens in their game against Kansas City. After that, the only thing left to decide among the six AFC participants would be who plays when and where. Speaking of which, if Baltimore loses to the Giants this Sunday, Cincinnati could win the AFC North by knocking off the Ravens in Week 17.

However, if the Steelers win this Sunday, it's a whole new ballgame, and the Bengals would then be on the outside looking in, and there would be nothing they could do about it besides win their last game and hope for a Pittsburgh loss to the Browns in the final week. And while it might be do or die for Pittsburgh this week, a victory over the Bengals on Sunday could potentially buy the team some wiggle room in Week 17. If both the Steelers and Bengals finish at 8-8, and the Dolphins lose another game.........yes, Virginia, Pittsburgh would be in the playoffs by virtue of the head-to-head sweep of Cincinnati. Crazy.

Another scenario would involve the Colts, Bengals and Steelers all finishing at 9-7. If that were to happen, Pittsburgh would obviously earn the tie-breaker over Cincinnati based on head-to-head and over Indianapolis based on strength of victory. Then it would come down to breaking the tie between the Colts and Bengals for the last playoff spot. Both teams would have identical 6-6 conference records and 3-2 records against common opponents. Strength of victory would then come into play, and as of right now, Cincinnati is 42-74 in that category.

Baltimore Ravens

At 9-5, the Ravens may have already secured a playoff spot, but thanks to three straight losses, the AFC North title that once seemed like a foregone conclusion is now in a bit of jeopardy. If Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh all finish at 9-7, as crazy as it seems, the Steelers would win the AFC North and earn the fourth seed based on the first tiebreaker for three-way ties within a division: Best head-to-head winning percentage--Pittsburgh would be 3-1 in that scenario, and the Ravens and Bengals would both finish 2-2.