The Pittsburgh Steelers have already clinched a spot in the 2011 NFL Playoffs, but there is still a great deal of uncertainty around where they will be seeded when those games begin. With the Steelers scheduled to play a very important final game on Sunday afternoon in Cleveland against the Browns, it is time to take a look at how the remaining scenarios could play out.
Here’s a look at the different paths that Pittsburgh can take on its way to the playoffs.
There are a few certainties in what is still a very unsettled AFC bracket.
The Steelers are locked in as the fifth seed if they do not win the AFC North Division. They cannot be the sixth seed because they will not have a record worse than 11-5. The sixth-seeded team will be, at best, 10-6, although a 9-7 team could get in under certain circumstances.
The Steelers also cannot be worst than the No. 2 seed if they do win the division. Since their record would be 12-4 in that scenario, they would be better than either the Houston Texans, who won the AFC South and are locked in as a third seed, or the winner of the AFC West (Oakland or Denver).
Everything else is still in play. Here’s a look at how they can get to each spot.
The Steelers—by virtue of a win over the Patriots in the middle of the season—can still claim the No. 1 seed in the AFC bracket. Here’s how they do it:
First, they must win their game against the Browns. With Ben Roethlisberger likely to return for at least part of the game, they have a good chance. If the Steelers do their job, two other things must happen.
They must win the AFC North by having Cincinnati defeat the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers would then be one game ahead of the Ravens. Cincinnati would slot into the sixth spot of the playoffs and Baltimore would drop to the fifth seed.
The Steelers can then claim the first seed if the Buffalo Bills upset the New England Patriots. This would give both Pittsburgh and New England 12-4 records—with Pittsburgh holding the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Pittsburgh would be the first seed and New England the second.
The Steelers must win the AFC North to claim the second seed in the playoffs. At this point, they are tied with the Baltimore Ravens for first place, but Baltimore holds the tiebreaker by virtue of two wins against the Steelers in 2011.
For the Steelers to claim the second seed, they must beat Cleveland to finish at 12-4 first, and then hope for Ohio’s other team—the Cincinnati Bengals—to come to the party motivated by the ability to win and get into the playoffs.
At that point, the Steelers would be 12-4 and the Ravens would be 11-5. The Steelers would be the second seed, Baltimore the fifth and Cincinnati the sixth. The Steelers would be assured the No. 2 seed if New England defeats Buffalo.
The Steelers have several paths to the fifth seed, which is where they are currently slotted for the playoffs and where most expect them to begin the chase for another Lombardi .
If the Steelers beat the Browns, they would be 12-4 and would still be the fifth seed, as long as the Bengals fall to Baltimore at the same time. Both teams would be 12-4, but the Ravens hold the tiebreaker and would be the conference’s No. 2 seed.
Another path to the fifth seed would involve the Steelers and Ravens both losing. At that point, both would be 11-5, but the Ravens would hold the tiebreaker over Pittsburgh and would thus be the second seed. This would also assure New England of the top seed regardless of their performance against the Bills.
The final path to the fifth seed would involve Pittsburgh losing and Baltimore winning. This makes everything very clean cut. The Steelers would finish 11-5 and the Ravens 12-4. Baltimore claims the second seed and is still in play for the first seed.
Now let’s have a look at what is most likely to happen when things finally unfold on Sunday in Week 17.
As nice as it would be to snatch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, grabbing the first seed from the Patriots is the least feasible result of Week 17’s games. The Patriots are playing a team that they traditionally own and doing it in New England—where it is nearly impossible to beat them.
Also likely to be thrown out is the path that has both Pittsburgh and Baltimore losing. While it’s feasible that one team would lose their game, it seems highly unlikely that both would fall on the same day at the same time with so much at stake.
There are some that believe the most likely scenario is that Pittsburgh will indeed take the No. 2 seed by virtue of the fact that the Bengals must simply win to make the playoffs and will be highly motivated: They are the only team of the three in the AFC North that has not clinched a spot already.
They can still lose and get in, but the odds are long.
I would say that is the most likely scenario, but that it’s tied with the possibility that both Pittsburgh and Baltimore will win and that the Steelers will be in the fifth spot.
Either way, both teams will be dangerous postseason competitors.