The AFC North is wide open with just five weeks left in the regular season. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are both sitting on 6-5, but at this point Baltimore sits atop the division due to their record against other teams in the division and a head-to-head win over Pittsburgh. Even the Bengals have a (slim) chance here, with a 3-7-1 record, although that would require both Baltimore and Pittsburgh failing horrendously, and Cincinnati getting at least four wins of the next five.
By looking at the division leaders' schedule over the last week and evaluating their chances of success in each of those games, it is possible to figure out who, out of the Ravens and the Steelers, will proceed to the playoffs by winning the division.
Many writers, including those over at ESPN Insider have the Steelers winning the AFC North. However, to actually understand that, the Ravens must also be understood. Baltimore, sitting very precariously atop the AFC North, have a record of 6-5, but have lost three of the last six games. Of the wins, two have came from teams with losing records (the Browns and Bengals) and one with a winning record (the Steelers). Their losing games have came from two winning teams and one losing team (the Jets). In terms of defensive success, the Ravens have allowed their opponents to score just 18.3 points per game. On the offensive side of the ball, they have scored 19.8 points per game. Using these stats, a prediction for each of their remaining games can be made by comparing their opponents stats.
The Ravens' next game is versus the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins are currently on a winning streak with a record of 7-4 and have won all of their last six games. However, only 2 of these teams have had winning records (Buffalo and Pittsburgh). They have had a weak schedule on the whole, so a team like Baltimore may well be what makes them come undone. The Dolphins have allowed 21.8 ppg and scored 22.6. This is not much of a difference, but I think that the score that they will put up will be less than average in this coming game against Baltimore due to the Baltimore defense. For that reason, I believe this can be chalked up as a win for Baltimore.
This is a different story for the ever consistent New England Patriots. Baltimore plays at New England in week 14. The Patriots have won 5 of their last six games (two with winning records - Buffalo and Pittsburgh) and three with losing records. Their sole loss is against Seattle. However, what puts this in favor of the Patriots is, much like Baltimore, their defense. The Patriots have allowed just 17.9 points per game and yet have scored 26.6 ppg. This suggests that the Patriots not only win regularly but do so by a good margin. I'm putting this as a win for New England.
The following game in week 15 is against the Philadelphia Eagles who gave Pittsburgh their first lost of the season. The Eagles since then have not put on quite as big a showing, as they have only won two of their last six games (Atlanta on a winning record and Minnesota both on winning records). However their losses have came at the hands of three winning teams and one losing team (The Packers, who sit on 5-6). It seems that the Eagles have been on a bit of a poor streak. However, they have scored an average of 23.1 points per game and allowed 19.4. That 19.4 is close to what the Ravens typically score. From that, I'd say that this game is likely going to be won, or lost, by the Baltimore defense containing the Philadelphia offence. Being as Baltimore allow so few points per game, I would have to say that that is a battle that Baltimore is likely to win.
On Christmas day the Ravens play at the Steelers. This is being touted as the game that will decide the AFC North, and I have to agree. This will be a close game simply due to the Steelers being back in form and wanting revenge from their previous matchup. The Steelers have a winning record, but have lost four of the last six games, with all their losses against teams with winning record and their wins were both against teams with losing records. However, as an avid fan of the Steelers (and a writer on this great website, Behind the Steel Curtain) I feel like I have to defend these losses. The Dolphins game changed momentum once Big Ben got injured (explaining that loss), the Patriots game was bound to be a loss (but a valiant effort that having Big Ben on the field could have pushed into a winning effort), the previous Ravens game was due to playing an injured Big Ben, and once Ben finally hit his stride in the fourth quarter it felt like it was a completely different game (although too little too late) and the Cowboys game was tight from start to finish. The Steelers, being in relatively good health now, could change that result. Further to that, the Steelers allow 20.2 points per game and score 24.2. That, when considering how few points the Ravens give up, will also push this into a close contest. However, due to the return of Big Ben, I'm giving this to Pittsburgh.
In the last week of the regular season, the Ravens play away at the Bengals. The Bengals have only won one of their last six games (against the Browns), and tied one with the Redskins (who themselves are a winning record). Their four losses have been against winning teams (on already being the Ravens in Baltimore). They have allowed an average of 22.3 points per game and scored just 19.4. This one seems like it will be cake walk for Baltimore.
The Steelers are the Ravens' biggest and closest rival at this point in the season. As I have already said, they sit on 6-5 and have allowed 20.2 points per game and scored 24.2. In the last six games they have won just two - but three of the four that they have lost they either didn't have Big Ben or he was playing with an injury. The other one, against Dallas, was remarkably close. They are in a perfect position to take the AFC from the Ravens without needing tiebreakers.
This week the Steelers play the Giants, and are generally favored to win. The Giants have won all six of their last games. However, five have been against losing teams, and four have been close contests (Bears, Browns, Bengals and Rams). Sure, a record like theirs, as well as winning their last six is intimidating, but in context it's not really. On average this team scores 21 ppg and allows 19.4. With the Steelers high powered defense this may well be overcome. Win - Steelers.
The following week, the Steelers play away in Buffalo. Buffalo sit on the same record as Pittsburgh at 6-5 and have won three of their last six games. These three wins were all against losing teams, and their loses all against winning teams. It appears that Buffalo are a cut above the trash, but not good enough to break into a top tier team. The Bills have allowed 21.5 ppg and scored 25.5 ppg. With such a weak defense, it's incredibly likely that the Steelers will take advantage of this. Another win the Steel city.
The week fifteen matchup for Pittsburgh is at Cincinnati. The Steelers have already beaten the Bengals this season, and it was a dominating performance. Again, the Bengals give up too many points and score too few. Their record is weak, and they have consistently under performed this season. This is essentially the same discussion about the Ravens at Bengals game, and garners the same result - a Bengals loss, and a Steelers win.
I have already gone into the details of the Christmas game against the Ravens, so I won't go into the details again - in short it could really go either way, but I'm giving this to Pittsburgh.
The final game of the regular season for the Steelers is at home versus the Browns. They have lost every game and have a strong chance of going winless. They have allowed an average of 29.3 ppg and scored just 16.4 ppg. This is clearly a Pittsburgh victory.
Adding all of this up, I make the final record for Baltimore 9-7 and the final record for Pittsburgh 11-5. That would firmly put the Steelers at the top of the AFC North. This does not mean that Baltimore won't make the playoffs, as they may well get themselves a wildcard spot. As well as that, I also realize that there a lot of factors I haven't considered (injuries, individual performances, returns from injury, playstyle of the team). But my point with this article was so much a massive in depth analysis as to who would make the playoffs, but rather a look a the schedules into who was more likely to make the playoffs to show that not all hope is lost.
Here we go Steelers!