Win and you’re in.
The Steelers haven’t exactly had a season to remember, with an underperforming team fresh off two straight home losses to 2-10 opponents. But despite their inexcusable losing streak, the Steelers somehow still find themselves in the AFC Playoff picture, entering Week 15 as the conference’s sixth seed.
As a result, Pittsburgh still controls its destiny with the playoffs rapidly approaching. Win out the rest of the season and they’re guaranteed a playoff spot. But there’s more nuance than that. For one, the Steelers don’t look like a team that will close out their season 4-0. And if the games fall the right way, the Steelers certainly don’t have to be perfect to sneak into the playoffs.
In that spirit, let’s look at this week’s upcoming slate of games involving one or more AFC teams to figure out who to root for in order to get the optimal playoff positioning for the Steelers:
Thursday Night Football
Los Angeles Chargers (5-8) at Las Vegas Raiders (5-8)
This matchup between underperforming AFC West teams is a big nothingburger for the Steelers. Win, lose, or tie, this game doesn’t matter at all to the Steelers’ playoff chances this week. Per the New York Times’ playoff predictor*, the Raiders winning here gives the Steelers a 1% higher chance at making the playoffs. Why? No idea. But either way, this game hardly moves the needle.
Who to root for: Raiders, I guess. I’m going for the Chargers.
Minnesota Vikings (7-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (7-6)
Not much of an explanation is needed here. The Vikings are an NFC team. The Bengals are an AFC playoff hopeful, an AFC North team, and a hated rival.
Who to root for: Vikings
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6) at Indianapolis Colts (7-6)
Pro tip: When putting together a Steelers rooting guide, make sure to recommend rooting for the Steelers.
Who to root for: Steelers
Denver Broncos (7-6) at Detroit Lions (9-4)
The Broncos have won six out of their last seven and are suddenly a few breaks away from a playoff spot in the AFC as a team with a lot of momentum. The Lions are from the NFC and easy to root for in this matchup.
Who to root for: Lions
Sunday early afternoon games
Chicago Bears (5-8) at Cleveland Browns (8-5)
A loss doesn’t kick the Browns out of the playoffs, but it’s a good start. Once again, an NFC team versus an AFC North rival makes an easy choice here.
Who to root for: Bears
New York Jets (5-8) at Miami Dolphins (9-4)
The first tough decision in this article. The Jets are unlikely to make the playoffs but they’re still in contention. The Dolphins aren’t guaranteed a spot yet, but they’re awfully close. Referring back to the NYT playoff predictor*, a Jets win marginally helps the Steelers. But it’s close enough that I’ll recommend going for the Dolphins here. A Miami win all but eliminates the Jets, and gets the Dolphins one step closer to knocking the Baltimore Ravens from the AFC’s top seed.
Who to root for: Dolphins
Kansas City Chiefs (8-5) at New England Patriots (3-10)
Despite being an AFC matchup, this game doesn’t do anything for the Steelers’ playoff chances. The Patriots are one of the two teams in the entire league mathematically eliminated from the playoffs entering Week 15, meaning they’re pretty harmless to the Steelers at this point. But if you’d like to keep kicking them while they’re down as revenge for those painful Tom Brady years, feel free to root for Kansas City. If you’d rather root for a reigning Super Bowl Champion to collapse down the stretch, go for the Patriots.
However, if every game in this article goes to plan, a Chiefs win would result in the Browns traveling to Arrowhead in the first round of playoffs rather than the Steelers based on the playoff picture at the end of Week 15.
Who to root for: Chiefs, I guess?
Houston Texans (7-6) at Tennessee Titans (5-8)
A Texans loss helps clear out the glut of 7-6 teams in the AFC entering Week 15. And with a Steelers win and a Browns loss, it would jump the Steelers from the sixth seed to the fifth.
Who to root for: Titans
Sunday late afternoon games
Dallas Cowboys (10-3) at Buffalo Bills (7-6)
It’s incredibly difficult to pull for the Cowboys here, but it’s an NFC team versus an AFC playoff hopeful with the same record as Pittsburgh. Per the playoff predictor*, a Cowboys win here gives the Steelers an 8% greater chance at making the playoffs.
Who to root for: Cowboys (with much remorse)
Sunday Night Football
Baltimore Ravens (10-3) at Jacksonville Jaguars (8-5)
The outcome of this game doesn’t change much for the Steelers, meaning it’s pretty easy to know who to root for here. Given that the Ravens’ chance at a Wild Card spot are much lower than the Jaguars, it’s actually the Jaguars that have a greater chance to impact the Steelers’ position in the Wild Card (if they make it at all).
Who to root for: Ravens
*The New York Times’ playoff predictor re-runs its simulation every time a user reloads the page or makes a change. As a result, the percentages mentioned in this article might not be the exact same for you, although they’ll certainly be in the same ballpark.
So there you have it: if every game mentioned above goes as planned, the Steelers’ playoff chances will take a major leap heading into Week 16. In fact, they’d jump from the sixth to fifth seed in the AFC and be on track to play Jacksonville on the road in the Wild Card round.
And even if everything else goes wrong, a Steelers victory still keeps them in the playoff picture as a sixth or seventh seed. A loss? There’s still a chance they’d stick around: if the Texans, Bills, Broncos, and Bengals all lose, the Steelers would be the AFC’s seventh seed even with a loss to the Colts.
Beyond that, it is mathematically impossible for the Steelers to be eliminated from the playoffs this week. Whether you’re ready for it to be or not, Pittsburgh’s season is still far from over.