As the Steelers prepare for their meaningless 2016 regular-season finale against Cleveland this Sunday at Heinz Field, they do so as AFC North champions for the second time in three years, after a thrilling and heart attack-inducing 31-27 victory over the Ravens on Christmas Night.
As you think back to the 15 games that shaped the Steelers’ 2016 campaign and set the stage for what most hope will be an epic playoff run to Super Bowl LI, I know what you’re probably thinking: “They should have a bye, damn it!”
You might deny you’re thinking this but, well, you are, and why? Because you’re still irritated by that 4-game losing streak that lasted from mid-October to mid-November and temporarily cost the team quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, permanently (at least for this season) cost the team defensive end Cameron Heyward and eventually cost Pittsburgh the second seed and a bye into the divisional round of the postseason.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the person who’s still upset at things that happened on November 13 (a 35-30 loss to the Cowboys), even though it’s the end of December and Pittsburgh is riding a 6-game winning streak into January.
Only a delusional person—for example, an idiot writer sitting in front of his laptop at his apartment in Crafton (home of Bill Cowher)—would suggest that winning three games to get to the Super Bowl (Pittsburgh’s mission, now that it’s locked into the third seed in the AFC) is a better situation than having to win only two games to advance to Houston.
Short of a bye, though, Pittsburgh is actually in pretty good shape as it gears up for its 30th postseason appearance since 1972.
Being locked into the third seed, the Steelers can and mostly will treat Sunday’s finale against the Browns as a bye-week. Head coach Mike Tomlin all but said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday that Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey and Roethlisberger will be standing on the sidelines, watching Fitzgerald Toussaint, Cobi Hamilton, Chris Hubbard (or is it B.J. Finney?) and Landry Jones do their best to knock off the 1-14 Browns, who still, somehow, are nearly a double-digit road dog (take that, Zach Mettenberger enthusiasts).
It’s unfortunate that the Steelers’ month-long slide has them locked into Wild Card Weekend, but think of it as a bout with food poisoning: before the losing streak, they looked great and, after the slide, they look as good as new.
As for the Steelers’ road to Houston, has there ever been a No. 3 seed who’s had such a promising path to the Promised Land?
Most likely, Pittsburgh will have to play the Dolphins in the first round. Sure, Miami crushed the Steelers on October 16 by the score of 30-15. True, Roethlisberger suffered a torn meniscus in that game and running back Jay Ajayi rushed for 204 yards. But that was in the tropics of southern Florida and not in the cold of western Pennsylvania.
And if Miami somehow escapes a flight to Pittsburgh, the Chiefs, on the losing end of a 43-14 blowout at Heinz Field on October 2nd, will be forced to make the trip if they lose to a hapless Chargers team this week and the Dolphins beat New England.
If the Steelers must face and endure the Miami scenario, they would then travel to the Black Hole to take on the Raiders in the divisional round. But thanks to a season-ending injury to Derek Carr last week, Oakland will be forced to use Matt McGloin (who, let’s face it, you’ve already made groin jokes about) at quarterback in that game.
Would the Steelers truly have a shot in that game? If you’re adamant that they needed a bye into the second round, then probably not. However, even if they did have the bye, they’d probably still face a date with New England at Gillette Stadium. Isn’t that what everyone was predicting back on January 17, 2016, when Pittsburgh lost to the Broncos in the divisional round? The belief was that Pittsburgh had some unfinished business to attend to, and getting to the AFC title game in 2017 seemed to be the minimum acceptable outcome in terms of future expectations.
Right now, the Steelers appear to have a decent shot at fulfilling these expectations and, if they do, they also have a decent chance to reach the Super Bowl. After all, New England doesn’t have Rob Gronkowski, and the Steelers now have their own version of the “Gronk Factor” in the person of Mr. Bell.
Speaking of injuries, while the AFC playoff field is set, four of the six teams can either improve or worsen their playoff seed when the Week 17 games kick off. That means those four teams must play all-out in their regular season finales, even if they really prefer to rest their key starters. Sure, the Patriots have at least a bye under wraps, but don’t you think they owe it to their fans to ensure two home playoff games for the duration of the tournament?
Yes, the Dolphins are assured of at least the final seed and a trip to Pittsburgh, but, despite an impressive home victory over the Black and Gold some three months ago, who do you think Miami would rather face: Ben Roethlisberger for a second time or the Texans’ backup quarterback, Tom Savage for the first time?
I’m thinking the latter.
As for the Raiders and Chiefs, obviously, they’d be foolish not to try and go for the AFC West title and the bye that will accompany it.
The last three times (2011, 2014 and 2015) when the Steelers entered Week 17 needing a victory either to improve their playoff seed or simply to acquire one, they lost their starting running back and were hampered throughout the postseason.
So, will the Steelers suffer any crippling injuries this week vs. Cleveland? If they do, it won’t be to Roethlisberger, Brown, Bell or anyone else on the offensive side. It probably won’t be James Harrison or Mike Mitchell on defense, either.
Why? Because Tomlin will rest as many players as he can get away with this weekend.
So, would a bye be ideal for Pittsburgh entering the 2016 postseason? Yes, but it’s certainly not vital.
All things considered, the Steelers are sitting in pretty good shape as they prepare for the postseason.