Six weeks ago, the Steelers sat at a dismal 2-6 subsequent to a thrashing at the hands of the Eagles in Philadelphia. Those donning black and gold wanted to simulate to the end of the season and even began pondering whether prized Alabama edge rusher Will Carter could wind up in Pittsburgh.
Now, in early December, Mike Tomlin’s team is right where it’s found itself in so many seasons: in the thick of the playoff chase. Sure, the Steelers might be listed in the “In the Hunt” category, but it’s a reassuring surprise to see Pittsburgh’s young nucleus fend for a postseason berth.
Entering the team’s Week 14 matchup against the Ravens, the 5-7 Steelers sit in third place in the AFC North and 11th in the AFC overall. Per Football Outsiders, Pittsburgh has just a 1% chance of claiming a division title and a 6.1% shot at making the playoffs. While not astronomical, those odds are, at least, not zero.
According to those same projections, the Chiefs, Bills, Titans, Dolphins, Bengals and Ravens all have over 90% chances to qualify for the playoffs. That leaves just one spot remaining, and a number of contenders who could sneak into the No. 7 seed and final Wild Card.
In addition to the Steelers, which teams should Pittsburgh fans follow? What do these squads’ remaining schedules look like, and how might this remaining qualifying spot shake out? Let’s break it all down.
AFC Seed: 11th
Remaining Schedule: Ravens, at Panthers, Raiders, at Ravens, Browns
Riding a two-game win streak, the Steelers have clung to the jaws of victory and turned an infinitesimal shot at mid-January into a mild possibility.
While winning one-score affairs over the Colts and Falcons is not wholly impressive, Pittsburgh’s running game has found success, and its offense continues not to turn the ball over, setting a likely franchise record in clean slates. That recipe, paired with a defense that’s made strides since 2021, could take a team far.
It’s absolutely imperative for Tomlin’s team to get a win against a Lamar Jackson-less Ravens team this week and to improve to 6-7. From there, Pittsburgh really (maybe) can only afford to lose once in its next four contests.
While the Raiders’ cataclysmic loss to the Rams on Thursday night likely knocked Las Vegas out of the playoff picture, that Christmas Eve game will still be significant. Further, a lot could be on the line with the Browns in Week 18 — more on Cleveland in a bit.
Regardless, the Steelers have nobody to look to but themselves if they want to eke their way into the dance. Win out following a similar formula, and suddenly a hot, nothing-to-lose 10-7 Pittsburgh team could be a tough matchup.
AFC Seed: 7th
Remaining Schedule: at Bills, Lions, Jaguars, at Seahawks, at Dolphins
Although New York’s offense has been turbulent in 2022, its defense has held strong. Buoyed by Quinnen Williams, C.J. Mosley, Sauce Gardner and more, Gang Green ranks fifth in defensive DVOA.
While the Jets currently hold the last seed in the AFC, New York faces a daunting schedule, with three of its last five games against teams currently in playoff position. The Jets did topple the Bills earlier this year, but the team hasn’t won in Buffalo in three seasons. Plus, the competitive Lions are not a pushover.
The Jets have remained a competitive team, and Robert Saleh’s offense appears steadier with the feisty Mike White at the helm; the franchise’s first playoff berth since the 2010 season is in reach. However, don’t be surprised if New York loses this last spot due to a whale of a schedule.
AFC Seed: 8th
Remaining Schedule: at Cardinals, at Raiders, Bengals, Dolphins, at Bills
Following a three-game win streak, New England has cooled off of late, dropping consecutive Thursday night clashes against the Vikings and the Bills. Behind Matthew Judon and a stellar secondary, the Patriots’ defense is superb, yet its offense is just 24th in DVOA and middle of the pack in scoring 20.8 points per game.
Monday’s game in Arizona against the Cardinals feels like a must-win, as does the following Sunday’s matchup in Las Vegas. From there, the Patriots will likely be underdogs in their last three games.
In light of offensive struggles, a tough slate and little current momentum, don’t expect Bill Belichick to add another playoff appearance to his historic resume in 2022.
AFC Seed: 9th
Remaining Schedule: Dolphins, Titans, at Colts, Rams, at Broncos
The Chargers appeared to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender after a resounding offseason, but the team has not lived up to expectations. Injuries to stars combined with poor situational play has left the team at .500, though Football Outsiders feels that record is an overestimate.
If Los Angeles can win one of its two upcoming games against the Dolphins and Titans, the path to going 10-7 is certainly possible. Yet, given that this team has been nearly impossible to figure out — including losing its last game to the Raiders. I wouldn’t count on Brandon Staley’s squad rallying at this point in the year.
AFC Seed: 10th
Remaining Schedule: at Bengals, Ravens, Saints, at Commanders, at Steelers
Given how much the Browns’ defense has underperformed this year, the fact that Cleveland still has a shot at the postseason is rather remarkable. Major credit goes to Jacoby Brissett, Nick Chubb and Amari Cooper for even keeping this team afloat.
Kevin Stefanski’s team has won two straight, but its victory in Houston was not exactly impressive. The Browns scored three touchdowns on a Donovan Peoples-Jones punt return, a Denzel Ward fumble return and a Tony Fields pick-six. Meanwhile, Cleveland mustered only six offensive points, as Deshaun Watson looked quite bad in his return from an 11-game suspension.
The Browns face a major uphill battle in facing the red-hot Bengals in Cincinnati, which projects to end in a loss. Cleveland would likely have to win out and end 9-8 to make the playoffs, but accomplishing that when facing the Ravens, Commanders and Steelers isn’t exactly probable.
Based on the outlines above, the No. 7 seed in the AFC will presumably finish either 10-7 or 9-8. The Patriots and Browns have slim chances to finish with such records given both their team tendencies and upcoming opponents, while the Chargers would have to seriously right the ship and get hot at the right time.
Effectively, that leaves the Steelers and the Jets. Expecting Pittsburgh to win four of its final five games is realistic, which would put Tomlin’s team at 9-8. Even with the Jets at 7-6 after a likely loss in Buffalo this Sunday, New York should capitalize on weaker Lions and Jaguars teams to make it to nine wins.
Notably, the Jets hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Steelers after New York’s Week Two win in Acrisure Stadium — that loss could seriously haunt Pittsburgh in five weeks. Regardless, Steelers fans should pay specifically close attention to Gang Green over the rest of the regular season.