It seems that whenever the Steelers earn a bye, I get tons of questions from friends and relatives that look a lot like this: "So, who will the Steelers play next week?"
Now, in defense of the people who ask this question, I will say it's been a while since Pittsburgh actually had two weeks to prepare for a postseason clash (the 2010/11 NFL Playoffs).
But let's get real, if you're a true, blue football fan, you should already know the formula for who the Steelers will play next Sunday at 1 p.m.
If the Jaguars, the No. 3 seed in the AFC, defeat the Bills, the No. 6 seed, in the wild-card round Sunday afternoon at 1:05 p.m., which they did, Jacksonville will be the team you make nasty memes about over the next week.
However, if Buffalo continues its playoff magic for at least another week, which they didn’t, it will travel to New England to take on the top-seeded Patriots in the divisional round next Saturday evening.
And if the aforementioned actually transpires, the winner of the Saturday afternoon wild-card game between the Chiefs and Titans (since you're reading this after that match-up already took place, you already know it's Tennessee— as do I, since I just watched the game, so I don't know why I didn't just eliminate this entire parenthetical run-on sentence) will travel to Heinz Field next Sunday.
Why? Because, if the Bills survive, they will be the lowest remaining seed in the divisional round, and the highest seed always plays the lowest seed in each round of the playoffs (yes, even the conference championship round—I realize there are only two seeds left in that case, but I feel I must strongly stress that, anyway).
This basic playoff format has been in-place since 1990 when the NFL expanded the field to 12 teams, so you'd think folks would have a grasp of it by now. However, I have found myself explaining it over and over again throughout the years, most-recently when the Steelers officially clinched a bye with a blow-out win over the Texans in Week 16.
If you think the NFL's playoff system is confusing now, you should have been around in the 1970's or 1980's.
For example, if I was writing this article in, say, 1973, I'm not so sure I'd even have a knowledgeable understanding of the NFL's playoff format, one that, for whatever reason, didn't use seeds, and, instead, was a rotational system based on divisions and had nothing to do with records and such.
Why, you ask?
Beats me, but just try reading the following Wikipedia explanation of it without saying "Huh?" at least two times:
"Originally, the home teams in the playoffs were decided based on a yearly rotation. From 1970 to 1974, the divisional playoff round rotated which of the three division champions would have home field advantage, with the wild-card teams and the teams they would face in the divisional playoff game would never have home field throughout the playoffs. Starting in 1970, the divisional playoff games consisted of the AFC Central champions and the NFC West champions playing their games on the road. Then in 1971 it rotated to the AFC East champions and the NFC East champions playing their games on the road. In the 1972 divisional playoff games, the AFC West champions and the NFC Central champions were the visiting teams. And in 1973 it would start all over with the AFC Central and NFC West again, and so on."
I really don't know why they did this in those days, but we are talking about an era that crowned its college football national champion almost exactly like this: "And the award for College Football Team of the Year goes to....man, these envelopes are so hard to open!"
This rotational format meant the 1972 Miami Dolphins, unbeaten and untied up to that point, had to travel to Pittsburgh to play the three-loss Steelers at old Three Rivers Stadium in the AFC Championship Game.
If you click on this link, you'll find an absolute treasure of some AP footage from the '72 conference title game (save for the fact that Pittsburgh lost). But if you do decide to watch the footage, please don't read the YouTube comments that follow, because someone named Jordon insists rather emphatically (and, apparently, without doing any research) that the reason this game was played in Pittsburgh on December 31, 1972, was because Miami's Orange Bowl was already booked to host the, well, Orange Bowl the very next day, January 1, 1973.
Another thing the NFL did from 1970 through 1989 was prohibit divisional foes from facing one another in the Divisional Playoffs. Talk about confusing (I mean, the name "division" is right there in Divisional Playoffs).
Why? Nobody knows—and we're not supposed to ask.
Anyway, this meant that, even after the NFL officially adopted a seeding system starting with the 1975 playoffs, you'd often see match-ups where No. 1 played No. 3 in the Divisional Playoffs, while No. 2 faced No. 4.
Thankfully, after the league began to re-seed after each round starting in 1990 (yes, even the conference championship round), we never had to witness such confusing match-ups.
But that didn't stop the confusion, apparently, as it still continues to this day (just look at YouTube Jordon).
Remember: In the wild-card round, No. 3 (the highest seed in each conference) plays No. 6 (the lowest seed in each conference), while No. 4 takes on No. 5.
If No. 3 wins, it automatically plays No. 2 in the divisional round, while No. 1 gets the winner of the No. 4 vs. No. 5 game. But if No. 6 defeats No. 3, No. 6 plays No. 1 the following week, while No. 2 gets the winner of No. 4 vs. No. 5.
And in the conference championship round....well, that's easy (I think).
I hope this tutorial on NFL playoff seeds has been helpful and informative.
Thank you and happy playoff watching.