The Steelers will clinch at least a wildcard berth with a win over Kansas City this Sunday, news that is old to you by now.
But since the Ravens (9-5), Bills (8-6) and Chargers (8-6) could all finish with the same 10-6 record as Pittsburgh if the team would then lose its regular season finale against the Bengals on December 28 and create a four-way tie in the AFC, you might wonder how clinching a playoff spot with still one-week remaining is even possible.
Pittsburgh still controls its own destiny (or is it fate?) with regards to the AFC North and will actually claim the crown by winning the last two games of the regular season (both at Heinz Field). But let's just say, hypothetically speaking, the Steelers defeat Kansas City this week and lose to Cincinnati in Week 17--a finish that would deny them a division title--they would still earn at least the sixth seed by virtue of owning every single tiebreaker over Baltimore, Buffalo and San Diego.
Keeping the Steelers hypothetical division-denying 10-6 finish in mind, let's break things down a bit:
Let's start with the Ravens, since the NFL breaks ties within the division first.
If the Ravens win this week in Houston but lose at home to the Browns in Week 17, Baltimore would finish with a 2-4 mark in the AFC North and would lose the tiebreaker to the Steelers, by virtue of their 3-3 division record. (Division record is the second tiebreaker, after head-to-head, and the two teams split their meetings this season.)
But what if the Ravens' hypothetical finish is reversed?
If the Ravens were to lose this week in Houston and win at home against the Browns in Week 17, sure, they'd tie Pittsburgh with the same 3-3 AFC North mark and obviously eliminate the top two tiebreakers. The third tiebreaker is common opponents, and a loss to the Texans would give both AFC North combatants matching 8-4 marks. The fourth tiebreaker would then be conference record, and this is where Pittsburgh (8-4) would win-out over the Ravens (6-6).
So, while a loss to the Bengals in Week 17 would give Cincinnati the division title, Pittsburgh would have the upper-hand over the Ravens, who would then have to duke it out with both Buffalo and San Diego for that final playoff spot.
For brevity's sake, let's breakdown both the Bills and Chargers playoff chances together and tell you why neither can beat out Pittsburgh for a postseason berth in a three-way, 10-6 tie that would involve a win this week over the Chiefs:
Let's say both the Ravens and Bengals win-out. Thanks to that pesky tie, Cincinnati would claim the AFC North crown with an 11-4-1 record, while Baltimore would then earn the first wildcard spot (fifth seed), thanks to finishing 11-5.
If the Bills and Chargers both win-out to finish at 10-6 with Pittsburgh, the Steelers would still claim that final playoff berth.
Since there wasn't a "series" involving the three teams in 2014 (only applicable if one team "sweeps," anyway), the next wildcard tiebreaker involving three or more teams falls to conference record. Again, the Steelers would be 8-4 and headed to the postseason, while San Diego (7-5) and Buffalo (6-6) would be cleaning out their lockers on December 29.
There you have it. While it might seem hard to believe the Steelers can actually clinch a playoff spot this week, as you can see, the Elias Sports Bureau is actually spot-on.
Now, if Pittsburgh loses to the Chiefs this week............let's only talk about that hypothetical if it becomes a reality and throws a huge wrench into Week 17.