The Pittsburgh Steelers head into Week 15 with a tenuous grasp on the final AFC wild-card playoff berth, but there's much that could happen in the season's final three games to change that significantly. There is only one surefire way for the Steelers to be guaranteed a spot in the postseason, and that's to win out, but there are other more meandering ways they can get there, too.
There is nothing the Steelers can clinch this week; all they can do is keep their playoff hopes alive. They need to defeat the Dallas Cowboys to remain in the race, though a loss doesn't necessarily mean January football is off the table. It just means that they'll need some help from other teams around the division to get them there, which is a less-than-desirable situation.
The AFC North is shaping up to have a very tense final three weeks. The Baltimore Ravens, who currently hold the division's top spot, have lost their last two games in a row and host the Denver Broncos and then New York Giants before wrapping up their season against the Cincinnati Bengals, another AFC North team in the playoff hunt.
The Steelers also see the Bengals again in Week 16, and close out their season against the Cleveland Browns, who have won five of their last eight games and have already defeated the Steelers once. If the Steelers defeat the Bengals in Week 16, they are almost certain to take one of the two AFC wild-card spots (the other more than likely going to the Indianapolis Colts), but they could also end the year with the divisional title, too.
That will depend on how the Ravens handle their final three weeks. Should Baltimore lose all three games, the Steelers win all of theirs and the Bengals drop just the Week 16 game against the Steelers, the Ravens may not make the playoffs at all, after holding control of the division for much of the season. That would put the Steelers into the postseason as divisional champs and give the final wild-card spot to the Bengals.
The opposite is possible as well: if the Bengals win out, the Ravens do not and the Steelers fall to the Bengals, then Cincinnati wins the division, the Steelers get a wild-card spot and the Ravens prepare for next year.
As you can see, there's a lot left to be decided. The Steelers need first to be concerned with defeating the Cowboys this Sunday and then the Bengals next week. If Pittsburgh beats Cincinnati, then it matters not what happens between Baltimore and the Bengals in Week 17—they're in, it's just whether or not they are as a wild-card team or divisional champions, and that is simply out of their control.
The Steelers cannot put themselves in the situation where they need to rely on other teams' win-loss records to gain entry into the playoffs. There is no room for complacency or error with everything they've worked for this year very much on the line. The best route from point A to point B is a straight line—if the Steelers can just put together three consecutive wins, they don't have to worry about what the Bengals, Ravens or any other in-the-hunt team does during the same span. That should be their ultimate goal.