Projecting Odds for Every Playoff Seed for the Pittsburgh Steelers
It was too good to be true.
The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line had been protecting Ben Roethlisberger so much better this season.
Roethlisberger had been sacked 17 times as he entered the second half of Monday night's game against the Kansas City Chiefs. He was on pace to be sacked 34 times for the season. Since 2006, he had been sacked at least 40 times every year except 2010, when he played in just 12 games.
It was so nice to see the offensive line actually providing Roethlisberger with a pocket, something that's been a luxury for most of his career.
Then, just when it seemed like Roethlisberger running for his life was a thing of the past, he gets hurt and is likely facing the longest absence of his career.
When Roethlisberger was sacked Monday night, it seemed innocuous enough. He didn't stay on the ground. There were none of the wolf-crying histrionics of seasons past.
It was difficult to realize Roethlisberger was really injured until Bryon Leftwich came in, and the real "Uh-oh" moment came when Roethlisberger was seen on ESPN getting into a cart in the bowels of Heinz Field.
Roethlisberger is out "indefinitely," according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Steelers normally would be eyeing a first-round playoff bye after winning four straight and improving to 6-3. Without Roethlisberger, however, they have some work to do to earn any playoff seed.
The Steelers host the Ravens Sunday night. After that, they go to Cleveland and Baltimore. They host the Chargers in Week 14, go to Dallas in Week 15 and finish the season at home against the Bengals and Browns.
The Steelers currently sit in the No. 6 spot and would travel to New England for a wild-card game if the season ended after nine games.
They still have plenty of time to alter that daunting itinerary.
No. 1 Seed
Don't be surprised if Peyton Manning leads the Denver Broncos (6-3) to the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
The toughest game remaining on the Broncos' schedule is at Baltimore in Week 15. Denver faces the Chiefs twice, goes to Oakland and hosts the Browns.
If the Broncos lose only to the Ravens and finish 12-4, the Steelers would have to run the table to earn the No. 1 seed, because the Broncos own the tiebreaker over the Steelers by virtue of their victory over them in Week 1.
The Houston Texans (8-1) currently occupy the top seed in the conference, but they've got some tough ones left on their schedule. They're at Detroit on Thanksgiving, which is never a slam dunk. They face the upstart Colts twice and they're at New England. Still, all they have to do is go 4-3 to finish 12-4.
It's hard to imagine any of the current AFC division leaders (Patriots, Ravens, Texans and Broncos) finishing any worse than 11-5 with their remaining schedules, so Pittsburgh might need a 12-4 record to earn the top playoff seed.
That means the Steelers would need to go 6-1 the rest of the way, possibly without Ben Roethlisberger in all seven of those games.
The No. 1 seed hasn't exactly been a championship blueprint for the Steelers. They were the top seed in 2001 and 2004 but lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game both times.
No. 2 Seed
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Let's just say Ben Roethlisberger misses the rest of the regular season. That doesn't mean he will, it just means the Steelers should prepare themselves to be without him at least until the playoffs.
Earning one of the top two seeds, and the first-round bye that goes with it, would give Roethlisberger nine weeks to heal before the Steelers' first playoff game.
The Steelers also would be following the same road map to the Super Bowl that they did in 2008 and 2010. They were the No. 2 seed both times.
To get there this year, they'll need to win a few games without Roethlisberger.
Based on the premise that none of the division winners finish worse than 11-5, the Steelers would need at least an 11-5 record to earn a first-round bye.
At least one of those 11 wins will have to come against the Ravens (7-2), who currently are the No. 2 seed. The Steelers must win the AFC North to capture any of the top four playoff seeds, who go to the division winners regardless of record.
The Steelers also need to improve on their 3-3 conference record. Even if they go 5-2 in their final seven games, they'll need tiebreakers on their side to earn a first-round bye at 11-5.
No. 3 Seed
In addition to winning the AFC North, the Steelers likely will have to finish ahead of the Texans, Broncos or Patriots to earn the No. 3 seed.
For that to happen, the Steelers need to go 4-3 the rest of the way, and one of the other division winners needs to fall short of 11-5.
The Patriots (6-3) have proven to be vulnerable on defense. They had to go to the wall to beat the Bills at home. After hosting Andrew Luck Sunday, the Patriots are at the Jets on Thanksgiving night then at Miami. As weak as the Jets and Dolphins are, winning division games on the road is never easy. After coming home from Miami, the Patriots host the Texans and 49ers in consecutive weeks.
Three more losses for New England isn't out of the question. If the Steelers can hold their own without Roethlisberger, the No. 3 seed is within reach.
No. 4 Seed
The Steelers only need to worry about their own division to earn the No. 4 seed. The Texans, Broncos and Patriots can do what they want. As long as the Steelers win the AFC North, they'll get the No. 4 seed and an AFC Wild-Card Game at home.
Sweeping the Ravens on Sunday in Pittsburgh and on Dec. 2 in Baltimore would go a long way toward winning the division, but the Steelers don't need a sweep to catch the Ravens. A split is more realistic, especially if the Steelers are without Ben Roethlisberger for both games against the Ravens.
There are no pushovers remaining on the Ravens' schedule. Between their two showdowns against the Steelers is a trip to San Diego. After hosting the Steelers, they visit Robert Griffin III and the Redskins. RGIII can give a defense fits, and the Steelers have the advantage of facing him at home.
Then the Ravens come home and welcome the Manning brothers in back-to-back weeks before finishing the season at Cincinnati.
Even if the Steelers split with the Ravens and remain a game behind them, they could still catch them with a little help as long as they don't collapse without Roethlisberger.
No. 5 Seed
If the Steelers don't win the AFC North, they'll have to settle for the No. 5 or the No. 6 seed to get into the playoffs.
The No. 5 seed doesn't come with much of a reward compared to the No. 6 seed. It likely will be the difference between going to Denver, Houston, New England or Baltimore in the first round of the playoffs. Pick your poison.
However, a race for that fifth spot is shaping up between the Steelers and Colts. Both teams are 6-3. The Colts currently hold the No. 5 seed because they have a better conference record than the Steelers.
The Colts are at New England on Sunday. They still have two games against the Texans. They have the Bills and Titans at home and then at Detroit.
Let's say the Colts lose at New England and split with the Texans. Maybe we throw another loss in there somewhere because as impressive as Andrew Luck has been this season, he is still a rookie.
That puts the Colts at 10-6.
Even if they don't have Ben Roethlisberger for the rest of the regular season, the Steelers could realistically go 4-3 in their last seven games. Perhaps they get swept by the Ravens and lose at Dallas, or split with the Ravens but get upset at home by the Chargers or Bengals.
If the Steelers and Colts both finish 10-6, the tiebreakers could be complicated.
To really ensure the No. 5 seed, the Steelers might have to get to 11-5.
No. 6 Seed
The No. 6 seed worked out pretty well for the Steelers in 2005, and that's their most likely landing spot in 2012.
Two games separate the Steelers and Colts from the rest of the pack in the race for the two wild-card spots in the AFC. Five teams in the conference have four wins, but none have five wins. The Dolphins had a chance to creep within 1 1/2 games of the Steelers and Colts, but lost to the Bills Thursday night and fell to 4-6.
The Steelers still have home games against the Chargers and the Bengals, both 4-5. Winning those games could quell any uprising from either of those teams.
The Titans (4-6) have the tiebreaker over the Steelers, but they still have to face the Texans and are at Indianapolis and Green Bay.
The Steelers would have to collapse to be overtaken by the Titans or Bills (4-6).
A 9-7 record might be good enough to get the Steelers into the playoffs. So all they have to do is tread water until Ben Roethlisberger returns.
The ability to get the job done without Roethlisberger has been a trait of Steelers Super Bowl teams.
They started the 2010 season 3-1 without him and went 2-2 without him in 2005.
So with Roethlisberger in street clothes, the Steelers will not only be fighting for a playoff berth, but also testing their mettle as a Super Bowl-caliber team.