The times have changed for what was the AFC’s hottest team just a few weeks ago.
The Pittsburgh Steelers just played their worst football of the season.
After winning four games in a row in the middle of the season, the Steelers are on a two-game losing streak—they are playing without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
In fact, the Steelers have only scored three offensive touchdowns in their last three games and things do not look to be getting any better until they get healthy.
An even greater concern is the complete lack of discipline that the Steelers are playing with right now; they have 15 penalties and 11 turnovers in the last two games.
Part of the reason that the Steelers have been so sloppy in recent weeks has been the injury issues. Pittsburgh has seen many of its best starters go into and out of the lineup, including Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Willie Colon, Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro, Mike Adams, LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu.
The Steelers have to get healthy—and soon—if they wish to hold onto that final playoff spot in the AFC.
If the playoffs started today, the Steelers would be in as the sixth seed with their 6-5 record. They hold the edge over the 6-5 Cincinnati Bengals based on the head-to-head victory earlier this season.
Pittsburgh needs some help if they are going to have a chance at the AFC North. The Baltimore Ravens are 9-2 and have a win over the Steelers.
Beside the Bengals, the 5-6 Miami Dolphins are still in contention for a wild-card slot. They still have a lot of work to do to catch up, but it is mathematically a possibility.
There are a number of four-win teams hanging on by a thread as well, including the San Diego Chargers, Tennessee Titans, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills. However, any of these teams that want to have an opportunity at a playoff berth must finish the season with five straight wins.
Unless the Steelers can win against the Ravens next week, their chances at winning the AFC North are nonexistent, so the focus will be on earning one of the two wild-card positions.
The game at Baltimore is one of the most important remaining on the schedule because with a win the Steelers will have a chance to crawl back into the division race. But more importantly, it is against a division opponent.
Following the game against the Ravens, the Steelers will play three of their final four games at Heinz Field.
They will need to get an AFC win against the San Diego Chargers to begin this stretch—they have won only three of eight games against conference opponents.
Pittsburgh will then travel to Dallas to face the Cowboys in what will be their final regular season road game of the year.
To close out the season, Pittsburgh will return home to face the Bengals and the Browns in two games that should decide the final playoff spot.
The winner of the game against the Bengals will likely be the sixth seed in the AFC.
Beside the home game against Pittsburgh next week, Baltimore has a very tough schedule down the stretch with road games in Week 13 and 17 against the Washington Redskins and Bengals, respectively, and home games sandwiched in between against the Denver Broncos and New York Giants.
All five opponents are in position to make the playoffs, and at best, the Ravens will likely split these games. At worst, expect them to win all three games at home and lose both on the road.
Which playoff spot will the Steelers earn?
That would put the Ravens at 12-4 and clinch the division.
The Bengals should be a greater concern for the Steelers as they are direct competition for the final playoff spot in the AFC.
Even though the Steelers have the edge with a win over the Bengals earlier this season, Cincinnati is very hot right now with three straight wins by an average score of 31-10.
They will close out the season with home games against the Cowboys (Week 14) and Ravens (Week 17) and road games against the Chargers (Week 13), Philadelphia Eagles (Week 15) and Steelers (Week 16).
With the way the Bengals are playing right now, they should easily be able to win three or four of their final five games.
The Colts are also a threat sitting at 7-4 right now. Not only do they have a game in hand over the Steelers, but they also have a very good 5-3 record against AFC opponents.
Indianapolis will travel to Detroit to face the Lions next week, followed by a home game against the Titans. They have a road-home split against the Houston Texans in Weeks 15 and 17, respectively, and a road game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 16.
With four wins, the Colts would secure the fifth spot and three wins would put them in terrific shape as well. Indianapolis would need a December collapse to miss the playoffs.
Who Gets In?
Unless Roethlisberger returns to the lineup next week against the Ravens, the Steelers are not going to win in Baltimore. That would put the Steelers at 6-6 and they would have to go into desperation mode for the final month of the year.
If the health issues persist, the Steelers will be sitting at home in January with an 8-8 record because they will lose to the Ravens, Cowboys and Bengals.
But reinforcements should be on the way. Roethlisberger, Brown, Polamalu—as well as others—should be getting healthy and returning to the lineup for the stretch run.
While the Steelers won’t win the division, they will win their final four games with Roethlisberger back under center—including the playoff-deciding game against the Bengals—to clinch the AFC’s final playoff spot with a final record of 10-6.