I can't speak for everyone, but when the Steelers huge game against Cincinnati kicks-off Sunday night at Heinz Field with the AFC North on the line, the anxiety won't be as palpable as it would be if the team was in a "do-or-die" situation.
After all, Pittsburgh is already guaranteed a playoff spot, and there's a big difference between "do-or-die" and "do-or-well, there's always that trip to Indianapolis."
However, here's the part of the article where I make the most obviously obvious statement of the season: It would be in the Steelers best interests to win the AFC North. Obviously, the biggest benefit would be a home game next week and an avoidance of Andrew Luck and a Colts team playing at home and indoors. A season ago, Indianapolis was in the exact same "four vs. five" wildcard match-up as the home team and came all the way back from a four-touchdown deficit to defeat the Chiefs and send them and their fans into an early winter-depression.
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Sure, Ben Roethlisberger outclassed the younger Luck when he passed for 522 yards and six touchdowns in Pittsburgh's 51-34 victory over the Colts at Heinz Field on October 26. But even though the Steelers defense applied pressure on Luck the entire game, sacking him twice and forcing him into two interceptions (one returned for a score) and a safety, he still managed to pass for 400 yards and three touchdowns. Does Pittsburgh really want to take its chances with Luck again?
A home game in the wildcard round means the Chargers, Ravens, Texans or Chiefs would travel to Heinz Field. Pittsburgh has shown enough vulnerabilities in 2014 that none of those opponents would be "gimmes" by any stretch of the imagination, but you'd have to like the home team's odds of advancing to Denver for the second round.
Ah yes, that second round opponent. With a win in the regular season finale, along with one next weekend, the Steelers would be guaranteed a date in Denver to take on Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the divisional round. Sure, that seems like a daunting task (it is), but you'd have to like Pittsburgh's chances. Yes, with over 4,400 passing yards and 39 touchdowns through 15 weeks, the legendary Manning is having a great year by any mortal's standards, but he would need to pass for nearly 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns in the Broncos' regular season finale against Oakland (maybe not impossible) in-order to match his historical season of 2013. Also, the Broncos scored 606 points in the regular season a year ago, and they'll finish 2014 with way less than 500. That's still impressive, but it's not 2013 impressive.
At 11-4 and with a bye, the Broncos have obviously set themselves up quite nicely for another Super Bowl run, but just as recently as this past Monday night, they showed some warts in a 37-28 loss at Cincinnati. Manning threw four picks, and the Bengals rushed for 207 yards against a Denver defense ranked second in the NFL in that category.
The Steelers have Le'Veon Bell. Maybe you've heard of him. He's kind of a big deal. Despite the city's rarefied air, I'd like Bell's chances of putting something on the Broncos in a mid-January contest at Mile High.
Again, obviously, Pittsburgh's secondary is awful, but Manning is older now and he never was fast. The Steelers pass-rush has shown signs of life recently, and as has been proven over the years, if you can rattle Manning, you have a chance.
Now, if the Steelers lose-out on the division title but some how manage to escape Indianapolis with a win next week, that would quite possibly mean a trip to Gillette Stadium to take on Tom Brady and the Patriots in the second round. You remember the Patriots, don't you? They're the team that put up 55 points and over 600 yards against Pittsburgh's suspect defense in November of last year.
The Steelers have never won at New England in a game that Brady started at quarterback, and I wouldn't want to find out if they have it in them to do it as early as the second round. You might say, "Well, wouldn't Pittsburgh have to play the Patriots, anyway, in-order to get to the Super Bowl?" Yes, but a lot about life is confidence and momentum. And, right now, the Steelers secondary is like a fat guy trying to get out of a chair; it needs to start rocking early, so it can build-up the momentum needed to get up out of that chair.
If the Steelers get two postseason victories under their belt, and one of those wins comes in Denver, that would be a lot of momentum, for both the secondary and the team as a whole; that would be a lot of confidence; that would be a lot of "We Believe!" and Terrible Towel purchases heading into an AFC Championship match-up in New England.
Besides, if you avoid the Patriots in the second round, there's always an outside chance of missing them totally, if they were somehow upset prior to the AFC title game.
The Steelers have already accomplished so much through 15 games of the 2014 season, and we're going to be hopeful and excited about next week, regardless of what happens against Cincinnati on Sunday Night Football. But an AFC North title could mean a heck of a lot more than just a hat and a t-shirt; it would set Pittsburgh up for a much easier path to a possible Super Bowl appearance in Arizona.