Following their come-from-behind victory on Sunday, the Steelers are in a favorable position. They currently sit at 12-3 and hold the third seed in the AFC, meaning that if the season ended today, they would face the sixth seed at Heinz Field on Wild Card Weekend.
However, with one week left in the regular season, a lot can still change. In a year in where home-field advantage plays a much smaller role due to the lack of fans in the stadium, who a team plays is even more important than what seed they finish. Pittsburgh can still take the second seed heading into the playoffs, and no matter where the team finishes, there are five different potential opponents the Steelers could play in the first round of the playoffs.
One stands out among that group: The Baltimore Ravens.
Not only is Baltimore a division rival, but they are currently on a four-game winning streak in which they are averaging 37 point per game. Furthermore, they almost beat Pittsburgh without half of their starting lineup back in Week 12. The Steelers have already taken down John Harbaugh's group twice this year, and doing it a third-time would be an impressive accomplishment, but given the history between these two teams, the Steelers should be hoping to play anyone but Baltimore a week from Sunday.
To find out how likely it is for these teams to meet up on Wild Card Weekend, we need to examine the many potential outcomes this Sunday, and see where each team is most likely to fall.
For starters, let's assume the Ravens will beat the Bengals to earn a trip to the playoffs. It is certainly possible for Cincinnati to pull off an upset, but in that scenario, the Ravens could possibly miss the playoffs altogether. While there are even more scenarios in which a Ravens loss has them traveling to Heinz Field for the Wild Card, it would come down to the outcome of 5 total games to see if it feel in a certain way. So, assuming Baltimore wins and finishes 11-5, their seeding hinges primarily on the outcome of Bills vs. Dolphins. The Ravens have the tie-breaker over the Colts and Browns, so it is impossible for them to drop in the seeding with a win.
However, should the Dolphins lose to Buffalo, the Ravens would move up to the fifth seed and would travel to either Nashville or Indianapolis next week. But, if the Dolphins win, the door is open for a number of new possibilities.
With a win and a Bills loss, the Steelers could jump the Bills and take the second seed, securing a matchup with either the Colts, the Browns, or the Ravens (only if they Ravens were to lose). On the other hand, if the Steelers lose they would remain in the third spot and would have to face the Ravens. Basically, with a wins this week by both the Steelers and Ravens, the two teams could not face each other in the Wild Card Round. This is because either the Bills will win and the Ravens will take the fifth-seed, or the Bills will lose and the Steelers will take the second seed. However, a loss leaves them in a dangerous position, likely to play one of the league's hottest teams, assuming the Ravens take care of business against the Bengals.
It is for that reason that benching starters this week is a risky decision. Back in Week 5, the Steelers dominated the Browns by a score of 38-7. There are no guarantees in the NFL, but considering how dominant the Steelers looked last time these teams faced, it seems more than likely the Steelers could take this game if they played all of their starters. But, with Roethlisberger, Watt, Heyward, Pouncey, and possibly more players taking the day off, the Browns are the clear favorite to win. Maybe Mason Rudolph will make the most of his opportunity and lead the Steelers to a shocking upset, but if we see the same version of Rudolph that we saw last year, it is more than likely the Steelers will drop the game, leaving them in the third seed.
Furthermore, announcing the decision to bench starters so early in the week gives Buffalo the chance to do the same. It seems as though the Bills are planning to roll with their starters this Sunday, but it wouldn't be surprising to see them sit their starters in the second half if the Steelers fall behind early considering that as long as the Steelers lose, Buffalo has nothing to play for. If Buffalo's starting lineup plays a complete game, they should be able to overpower Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins, but if Buffalo sits players for any portion of the game, the Dolphins chances to win will significantly improve, likely resulting in a Steelers-Ravens Wild Card matchup.
It's true that in order to succeed in the NFL, you cannot fear your opponent. Coach Mike Tomlin will surely have that mindset no matter who the Steelers are set to face in the wildcard round. But if we are being honest, a game against the Ravens would not be an ideal start to a potential playoff run. Earlier this season Ryan Clark explained how the best time to play either the Ravens or the Steelers is following their matchup with each other due to the physicality and intensity that is present each time they meet. Even if the Steelers manage to beat Baltimore for the third time this season, it may leave them tired and depleted entering the divisional round of the playoffs.
All this is not to say that the Steelers should play all of their starters this week. Considering that they never had an official bye week and have had little to no rest since the start of the season, it makes sense to give Ben Roethlisberger and some other veterans a week off. But, the team should be aware of the risks involved in such a decision. They are putting the fate of their wildcard matchup in the hands of a quarterback who struggled mightily last season; but then again, Pittsburgh could have ended up facing the Ravens in the divisional round or conference championship anyway. For now, all we can hope is that this decision doesn't end up leaving the Steelers in a precarious position next weekend.
Do you agree with the Steelers' decision to bench some starters this week against the Browns? Let us know in the comments.