Coming off a disappointing loss to the Cleveland Browns (3-8), the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) have a lot of work to do if they're going to be a viable playoff team once the regular season ends. With five games to go, the Steelers are in some trouble even if they are still technically in the playoff picture.
Here's a look at five ways the Steelers could earn a playoff berth.
The Steelers could maybe afford to lose one more game. That would leave them with a 10-6 record. In an AFC that is remarkably weak this season, that should be enough to put them in the playoffs.
The problem with that logic is that they'd still need help at 10-6. Right now, their biggest competition for a wild-card spot would be Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Neither team is blowing the doors off the competition, but both are winning games with some regularity.
The Steelers, injuries and all, are falling apart slowly. After the offense spent the first several games picking up the defense, the defense has given the offense all the help possible only to be let down by a succession of timid and passive performances.
An 11-5 record would ensure the Pittsburgh finished second in the division because it would give the Bengals another loss. That would definitely put them into the playoffs.
My biggest fear with Ben Roethlisberger planning to return next weekend in Baltimore is that something will happen in that game that will end his season. If you don't think the Ravens will focus their efforts on Roethlisberger's right shoulder and ribs, you don't know the NFL.
Any sane team would try to eliminate their biggest competition. That's typical survival instinct in this league.
The Steelers are one more major injury away from being completely non-competitive for the remainder of the season. If Sunday's loss to Cleveland showed anything, it is that this team now lacks the necessary talent to compete with any other NFL team.
The Steelers turned the ball over eight times and lost the game by six points.
Think about that.
One big play or one good drive turns that game around. That is the prime example of how injuries have shut down this team completely.
One way to make the playoffs would be to win the division. While that may seem a bit of a pipe dream at this point, the Baltimore Ravens have proven to be a beatable team lately. They've been blown out by the Texans, won a close game against a shiftless Steelers team and still have a tougher closing schedule than Pittsburgh.
If the Steelers can find a way to defeat them next week in Baltimore, the division race opens back up a bit. Pittsburgh would still need help from Baltimore's remaining four opponents, but that could happen given their recent struggles.
The Steelers would still need to win out and keep the Bengals behind them, but if they won the division, they could ensure themselves one home game as the third or fourth seed. That would be a big boost to a team that hasn't been very good on the road.
The easiest route to the playoffs would be to beat the Bengals.
The Steelers must ensure they finish second at worst in the AFC North. The only way all three teams in the division that have a playoff hope left can get in is if the Steelers are second and the Bengals third.
9-7 or 10-6 would likely be enough to get in as the sixth seed. The only team outside of Cincinnati and Indianapolis that is a real threats would be the San Diego Chargers. The Steelers would have to beat them too, of course, but they could lose there and still sneak in.
Losing to the Bengals would likely push the Bengals into the drivers seat and it would be like 2009 again, where the Steelers can finish with enough wins but lose every tiebreaker that matters.
Beating the Bengals would put this team in. It really is that simple.
The Steelers, now sporting a -10 turnover ratio, are the worst team with a winning record in that department. That's not Pittsburgh football.
The problem really isn't so much the defense not forcing enough turnovers. That's not a good thing, but it has hardly been the reason this team has lost their last two games.
The problem is that the offense has been picking up the turnover frequency at the absolute worst time. Charlie Batch threw three interceptions against the Browns to go with five lost fumbles.
It's been over a decade since a team turned the ball over eight times. That simply can't happen again.
But there are other mistakes too. Poor timeout usage by Mike Tomlin, vanilla play selection by Todd Haley, lack of adjustments by Dick LeBeau and drops by the receivers, particularly the petulant Mike Wallace, have cost this team at various times through the entire season.
Until the Steelers get back to playing mistake-free football in every respect, they will have a very hard time climbing the mountain to get to the playoffs.