With Monday night's game looming against the struggling Kansas City Chiefs (1-7), the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3) are thinking playoffs. They certainly seemed to be gearing up for a strong second-half surge to the finish, but where might they fit into the playoff picture?
Here's a look at how the Steelers might fit into the playoff picture as we prepare to tune into Monday night's game against the Chiefs.
If the Playoffs Started Today
If the playoffs started today, the Steelers would be one of the wild-card teams. They're currently set as the sixth seed in the playoffs. They'd be setting up for a trip to Foxboro to face the New England Patriots. That's a rough prospect for any team, but the Steelers actually match up pretty well against the Patriots.
The bigger question for a team that undoubtedly would like to add a record seventh title to their trophy case this year is whether or not they could replicate their 2005 magic and win three straight road games to get to the Super Bowl.
That's a tall task for any team. The Steelers would face the high-octane Houston Texans in the divisional round.
For their own good, the Steelers would do well to try to move up in the seeding to get more favorable matchups.
Looking Into the Crystal Ball
Since the playoffs do not start today, we can look ahead a little at the remaining schedules of some teams to see how things might shake out.
I would still project the Texans as the top seed. That just doesn't seem like it's going to change. I do think the Baltimore Ravens will fall back some and possibly be caught by the Steelers. Either way, I'd expect the winner of the AFC North to be the second seed.
The Steelers, if they continue to play at a high level, may have no more than one or two losses left on the schedule. It's risky to predict a sweep for either Pittsburgh or Baltimore when they play each other. A split seems more likely.
Which division will have the second seed?
Outside of that, the Steelers could fall to either San Diego or Dallas, but that's not exactly likely. The second game with the Cincinnati Bengals could be rough. That would be my guess if they were to lose two more games.
The AFC East and AFC West winners don't look to be teams that can unseat the Steelers or Ravens in the second spot. The Denver Broncos are the more interesting team. They're coming on strong at this point and might get there, but their schedule looks more problematic than Pittsburgh's.
So if the Steelers can overtake Baltimore, they should be the second seed and enjoy a much-needed bye week and home-field advantage for at least one round.
Who Wins the North?
The Steelers and Ravens will play two games against one another in the next three weeks. That's brutal for both teams, but if they split it likely won't decide the division. A sweep for either team will tip the scales decisively.
Who will win the AFC North?
Outside of those games, the Steelers have the more friendly schedule. They face the sad sack Cleveland Browns twice, the struggling San Diego Chargers, the scuffling Dallas Cowboys and the Cincinnati Bengals in Pittsburgh.
That's a pretty good schedule. The Ravens have to handle the Broncos and the New York Giants among others. They don't have a terrible schedule, but the road isn't smooth.
The key for the Steelers is simply to continue playing hard and beating the teams that they're favored to beat. They've already surprised people with the way they handled the Giants. If they can do that against the Ravens twice, they'll be on the way to a 13-3 or 12-4 finish.
It's still pretty early. The AFC is a closely contested conference right now. There are a ton of teams in the thick of the race for wild-card spots and only one division is decisively leaning in a team's favor.
If I had to guess, I would say the Steelers have a good chance of ending up the second or third seed as the AFC North winner and at worst will be the top wild-card team.