It seems like the Pittsburgh Steelers reach the AFC Title Game every other year. Well, not quite. They've reached eight AFC title games in the last 17 years.
This season, the Steelers will get to their ninth AFC Title Game since 1994. So we'll be able to say that the Steelers, on average, get to the AFC Title Game every other year.
This is a Super Bowl-caliber Steelers team. Like the Steelers' 2008 and 2010 Super Bowl teams, they have no surprising losses staining their resume.
In 2010, the Steelers' losses came to teams with a cumulative record of 48-16. In 2008, the teams that beat the Steelers combined for a 46-17-1 mark.
The 2011 Steelers, like the last two Steelers teams to reach the AFC Title Game and Super Bowl, have been upset-proof so far this season.
Let's keep that in mind as we look at the Steelers' playoff scenarios.
Potential Wild-Card Opponents
The Steelers are assured of no worse than the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs, and the No. 5 seed will meet the AFC West champion.
If the Steelers finish second in the AFC North, they'll be at Denver or Oakland next week for a Wild Card Game. The AFC West winner will have a 9-7 record, at best.
The Broncos' two-game losing streak has made Tebow Time yesterday's news. If the Steelers play in Denver, however, they might be without safety Ryan Clark, their leading tackler.
Clark became gravely ill in 2007 when he played in Denver. His sickle-cell trait and the high altitude were a bad combination, and he had to have his spleen removed.
Clark's absence in Denver should be of little concern to the Steelers. The only reason he's the Steelers' leading tackler is because they're not stopping the run as well and more plays are getting to him. Also, Ryan Mundy is a capable backup.
If the Steelers go to Oakland next week, Ben Roethlisberger can pick apart the NFL's 25th-ranked pass defense. Plus, Al Davis is dead, so the Steelers wouldn't have to worry about their locker room being bugged.
If the Steelers continue their pattern of not losing to inferior opponents, a Wild Card Game shouldn't be much of a hurdle to the AFC Title Game—if they even have to play a Wild Card Game.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Steelers win the AFC North and get a first-round bye. That's what will happen if they take care of business against the Browns in Cleveland and the Bengals beat the Ravens in Cincinnati.
The Bengals are in the playoffs if they beat the Ravens, no scoreboard-watching required. They were without star receiver A.J. Green when they lost 31-24 to the Ravens in Baltimore, and still came within seven yards of tying the game.
So there's a real possibility the Steelers will need just one win to get to the AFC Title Game.
Potential Divisional Round Opponents
The Ravens and Patriots are the Steelers' two biggest obstacles to reaching the AFC Title Game.
They'll need to beat one of those teams, not both, to get there.
The Steelers finally figured out how to beat the Patriots this season, and that defense is ranked dead-last in the NFL. The Steelers can shred that secondary at Gillette Stadium just like they did at Heinz Field.
On defense, the Steelers beat the Patriots in October without the benefit of turnovers. Since then, they've forced 11 takeaways in seven games.
Then there's the Ravens.
Sure, the Ravens have beaten the Steelers twice this season.
It's one thing to beat the Steelers on a sunny September afternoon, but home or away, the Ravens historically have had trouble with the Steelers when the games mean more in the winter chill. I like the Steelers' chances in that situation.
Furthermore, unlike the Steelers, the Ravens and Patriots occasionally have been bitten by underdogs this season. Of the four teams to beat the Ravens, only the Titans can make the playoffs. The Patriots lost to one non-playoff team (Bills) and one team still fighting for a playoff berth (Giants).
Let's not forget about the Texans, who are locked into the No. 3 seed in the AFC. They're down to their third quarterback. I doubt T.J. Yates would stand between the Steelers and the AFC Title Game.
The Woodley Factor
The Steelers might get LaMarr Woodley back for the playoffs, or they might not. It's hard to fully recover from a hamstring injury.
Either way, the Steelers' ability to go 11-4 despite losing their best defensive player for the second half of the season is further evidence that they can handle anything in their path to the AFC Title Game.
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