With a 3-3 record and trailing the Houston Texans by a touchdown at home on a balmy Monday night in October, it looked all but certain the Pittsburgh Steelers were on their way to another mediocre season. Three minutes and three scores later, the Steelers were right back in the game, ultimately defeating Houston 30-23.
After defeating the Chiefs 20-12, the Steelers have clinched a spot in the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, their last trip ending unceremoniously in Denver as Demaryius Thomas sprinted into the end zone on the first play of overtime to give the Broncos a win. The Steelers entered the 2011 playoffs as one of the AFC's hottest teams, winning six of their last seven games, only to taste defeat in the Mile-High air.
But there's something different in 2014. The Steelers are playing great football right now, but they're certainly not without flaws. The poor play of the secondary has been a troublesome issue this season. Losses to the woeful Jets and Buccaneers are nearly inexcusable. But something exists this season that hasn't existed as much in seasons past: parity.
Four AFC teams have already clinched spots in the playoffs: Pittsburgh, New England, Denver, and Indianapolis. Cincinnati, barring supremely unfortunate circumstances, is a near-lock as well. All five of these teams have issues, as noted by Rob Rossi in a feature story for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. New England's struggles were evident early this season as their offense sputtered in the early weeks of the season. The Patriots seem to have turned things around, but Tom Brady and company have the potential to collapse, as they nearly did in a 17-16 victory against the Jets, needing a questionable call late in the fourth quarter to aid their effort. Peyton Manning is almost certainly playing injured to some degree and, while C.J. Anderson has stepped up to give the Broncos a viable rushing attack, the Broncos are built to stretch the field vertically with their passing game. Indianapolis has shown flashes of brilliance shutting down the Bengals, winning close games against the Texans and Ravens, and crushing lowly opponents like the Giants, Jaguars, and Titans. The Colts have also been on the losing end of some utterly head-scratching losses, most recently their blowout defeat against the Cowboys, in which future face-of-the-NFL Andrew Luck was benched early in the third quarter. The Bengals have lost to three current AFC playoff teams (Patriots, Colts, and Steelers) by sizable margins, have one three-touchdown loss to the Browns and one tie against the Panthers (which could come back to haunt them). Plus, Andy Dalton is their quarterback, and he has never won a playoff game.
All of this suggests the AFC is as wide open as it has ever been. The Patriots will enter post-season play as the favorite to represent the conference in the Super Bowl. Rightfully so, as they possess home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The rest of the AFC playoff field, however, has the potential to make their own way in the playoffs. When the dust settles in the AFC playoff race, look for the Steelers to have as good as chance as anyone to make it to the Super Bowl.