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Playoff Scenario: What it takes for the Steelers to clinch a playoff spot, the division, and more

There are several milestones the Steelers will be looking to clinch over the remainder of the season, and Week 13 can start it off.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Who would have thought this offseason that the Pittsburgh Steelers would be in such a great position that the discussion of how things play out for them to clinch a playoff berth would happen with 5 games remaining? But it’s true! Last week there was a scenario where the Steelers could clinch a playoff berth, but Week 13 is a much more attainable situation thanks to their 11-0 start to the season.

The thing that really comes in to play with many matchups in the NFL and clenching certain positions has to do with tiebreakers. With five games remaining for each team, tiebreakers get very tricky. For example, the Steelers already have a tiebreaker over the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens, but they have yet to play the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills, so a tiebreaker there is undetermined. Another example is the Steelers currently have the tiebreaker over the Cleveland Browns as they have already defeated them once, but with a game remaining against them this tiebreaker could change. And with teams the Steelers don’t play in 2020, it’s an ever-changing thing based on each week.

Because of these complex things, when we look at some of the magic numbers for the Pittsburgh Steelers when it comes to clinching things with the 2020 postseason we will somewhat ignore tiebreakers overall but speak to each of them as they come up. If the Steelers were to finish a game ahead of any of these teams, the tiebreakers would not matter. Therefore, these numbers will reflect what is needed to clinch the spot without the need of a tiebreaker in most cases.

So where do the Steelers sit right now when it comes to locking up certain things with the 2020 postseason? Here are the numbers of what it would take for certain milestones. Remember, a “magic number” is reduced with a Steelers win or an opponents loss. Owning the tiebreaker would account for another reduction of one assuming there is not a multi-team tie.


Clinching the AFC North

Since the Cincinnati Bengals have officially been eliminated from the AFC North race, the Steelers had to contend with both the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns coming into Week 12. Things have changed, so here is the magic numbers for clenching the North over each of these teams going into Week 13:

Baltimore Ravens: Eliminated!

While it’s still mathematically possible for the Ravens to run the table and the Steelers to not win another game and these teams to finish with the same record, two wins over the Ravens seals the tiebreaker and they are out of the AFC North title even in the event of a three-way tie.

Cleveland Browns: 3

Once again, the magic number of three is what it would take for the Steelers to finish a game ahead of the Browns. But, if the Steelers win this week and the Browns lose, it would erase the entire number as the last clinching job would be the Steelers having the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Browns. So should the Steelers defeat the Washington Football Team and the Browns fall to the Tennessee Titans, the AFC North will be clinched this week. If one of those things does not happen, particularly the Browns loss, it does not necessarily mean the Browns losing the following week would change things as a victory over the Titans would help the Steelers in the strength of victory department. So one Steeler victory and one Browns loss sealing the deal only works for Week 13 at this point, so any future scenario will be covered at a later time if it remains.

UPDATE: The NFL has updated what the Steelers need to tie in strength of victory with the Browns. For Week 13, the following 5 teams need to win (or 4 wins and 1 tie) along with a Steelers win and a Browns loss: Baltimore, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, and Miami.


Clinching a Playoff Berth

There are now 8 teams who are mathematically capable of catching the Pittsburgh Steelers to at least tie them in record. The Steelers need to stay ahead of 6 of those teams. So a combination of knocking out any two of the teams listed below would clinch a playoff birth.

Baltimore Ravens: Still eliminated!

One of those eight teams the Steelers must finish ahead of are the Ravens. And I stated before, even though they could match the Steelers in the win column, they can’t catch them in the head-to-head tiebreaker. Even if there is a strange multi-team tie, the Steelers would still eliminate the Ravens because of head-to-head matchup as they go through scenarios to decrease the number of teams who would be tied.

Las Vegas Raiders: 1

The Raiders have the same record as the Baltimore Ravens and would have to run the table with the Steelers losing out in order for them to tie in record. The tiebreakers cannot be established at this time since these teams do not play in 2020. But with the Raiders still having to face two other teams in the next category, all three teams can’t win both games. A Steelers win (or tie) or a Raiders loss (or tie) locks Pittsburgh in the postseason. But there are even more scenarios for the Steelers to clinch this week…

Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins: 2 (with explanation)

Although they are a game ahead of the Raiders, if either of the Colts OR the Dolphins lose or tie in Week 13, the Pittsburgh Steelers have clinched a playoff spot regardless of their outcome. The reason this comes into play is the fact these two teams still play the Raiders later on in 2020.

Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans: 3 (but actually less)

The Cleveland scenario has already been explained in the AFC North, and the Steelers have already defeated the Tennessee Titans which takes away another one of these games. Also, the Steelers play the Buffalo Bills in Week 14 so that tiebreaker is yet to be determined. The odds of any of these three teams needing to be the one that the Steelers need to eliminate rather than one from an above category is extremely small. In essence, these teams only factor in to securing the number one seed.


Clinching the number one seed

In order for the Steelers to lock up the top seed in the AFC, they will need to have eliminated all previously mentioned teams as well as the one listed below.

Kansas City Chiefs: 5

If the Steelers do not want to have to rely on tiebreakers which would completely depend on which teams either themselves the Chiefs would lose to over the remainder of the season, they would need to finish a game ahead. Right now the Chiefs are only one game behind the Steelers at 10-1. So if the Steelers want the top seed in the AFC, there is little room for error at the moment as the only games the Steelers have control over are the five they have remaining. To not need help, they will have to keep winning.


So there’s a brief rundown of what it would take for the Pittsburgh Steelers to lock up certain positions in regards to the 2020 postseason. As the end of the season draws near, the exact tiebreakers will become much more clear and will be able to be factored into the equation. When those tiebreakers go from “most likely” to “definite” and can eliminate a team from catching the Steelers, they make the situation even better.

Just to make sure Steelers’ fans know what it takes to clinch a playoff spot in Week 13, they need only ONE of the following:

Steelers win or tie
Raiders lose or tie
Dolphins lose or tie
Colts lose or tie

If any of these happen on Sunday, the Steelers could qualify for the postseason before even playing their game Monday.