By winning in convincing fashion against the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers clinched the AFC North and a first round bye in the NFL playoffs. This gives the team an opportunity to rest an extra week before having to take the field. This is a welcome week off for the Steelers.
Several Steelers are battling injuries. Aaron Smith is trying to return from a torn triceps muscle that nearly ended his season. However, the Steelers did not place him on the injured reserve list in hopes that he could return during the playoffs. Troy Polamalu has been nursing a painful Achilles' tendon that forced him to miss two games. Ben Roethlisberger has a broken nose and a foot injury that has hampered him.
While the bye week is just what the doctor ordered for the Pittsburgh Steelers, it can be an anxious time for their fans. There are some important questions on the mind of Steelers fans this week.
Who will the Pittsburgh Steelers face?
As the second seed in the playoffs, the Steelers will play the highest remaining seed after the Wild Card round has been played. This means the Steelers definitely will not play the sixth seed New York Jets.
That leaves potential matchups against the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, or Indianapolis Colts.
Of these three potential opponents, which team will provide the most favorable matchup for the Pittsburgh Steelers?
The following slides will discuss the two Wild Card matchups in the AFC and the possible implications for the Steelers.
The Indianapolis Colts were the fourth most prolific offense in both total yardage gained and points scored during the regular season. They will face off against a New York Jets defense that ranked third in total yards allowed and sixth in points allowed. This is a classic example of strength against strength.
On paper, this is a game that the Colts should probably win. But as Herm Edwards would say, "That's why we play the game."
As the third seed, if the Colts are victorious, they will travel to Heinz Field to face the Steelers during the divisional round regardless of what happens in the other Wild Card game.
Of the Steelers' three potential opponents, this is probably their least favorable match-up. Pittsburgh has the league's best rush defense, but has been leaky at times against the pass. Indianapolis has the best passing attack in the NFL.
This certainly isn't a game that the Steelers couldn't win, but Indianapolis is a very dangerous team. Most Steelers fans should probably cheer for the Jets to put their team in the best position to advance to the AFC Championship.
The Kansas City Chiefs have the best rushing attack in the league. They will be going against the Ravens' fifth ranked rushing defense. This is another example of strength vs. strength.
The Chiefs will not have an easy time gaining yards on the ground against such a stout rushing defense. This is bad news for Kansas City because its passing attack has not been very good this season. Only two teams in the NFL have gained fewer yards through the air.
Equally troublesome for the Chiefs is that the Ravens have Ed Reed at free safety. If Matt Cassel tips his hand to Reed, it is very likely that the ball-hawking Reed will end up with at least one interception.
Should the Jets upset the Colts, the winner of this game will visit Pittsburgh during the divisional round.
The Steelers are very familiar with the Ravens. The two teams split their regular season meetings. However, Ben Roethlisberger was not playing due to suspension when the Ravens beat the Steelers in week four.
This is a game that most fans expect the Ravens to win. However, if the Steelers are in position to host the winner of this game, their fans should be cheering for the Chiefs. The Ravens are a more dangerous team with a more dangerous quarterback in Joe Flacco.
Tom Brady has historically been a problem for the Pittsburgh Steelers, especially during AFC Championship games. There is nothing Steelers fans would like more than to avenge past AFC Championship losses at the hands of New England at Heinz Field by upsetting the Patriots at their house in the AFC Championship.
However, Steelers fans certainly will not cry if the Patriots are upset during the divisional round. In fact, some Steelers fans may actually want the Patriots to face the toughest team that they possibly can in hopes Pittsburgh can avoid traveling to New England for the AFC Championship.
As the top seed in the AFC, New England will play the lowest remaining seed after the Wild Card round. Therefore, the Patriots will not play Indianapolis during the Divisional round. The three possible opponents for New England are the New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs.
Of these options, the team that has the best chance to beat the Patriots is the Baltimore Ravens. However, in order for this to happen the Colts have to defeat the Jets.
The Ravens were able to beat the Patriots in convincing fashion during the playoffs last season, but the Patriots defeated the Ravens earlier this season. There is no guarantee that the Ravens can knock the Patriots off for the Steelers.
The next best candidate to defeat New England is the New York Jets. The Jets were able to win one of their games against New England early in the season. However, the Patriots beat New York convincingly during the second matchup.
Steelers fans are sure to have split opinions on who they want to see face the Patriots.
All things considered, it is very likely that the Steelers will be hosting the Indianapolis Colts a week from Saturday. This will be the toughest possible matchup for the Steelers in the divisional round; however, it may be a blessing in disguise.
New England should expect to play the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens were able to jump out to a big lead last year in the playoffs. While New England won the regular season game between the two teams, it was a very close game and Ed Reed did not play because he was placed on the physically unable to perform list at the onset of the regular season. This could prove to be a huge factor in the event of a rematch.
If these predictions come true and the Steelers are fortunate enough to advance against the Colts, it could set the stage for déjà vu. If the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship, it will be a rematch of the 2008 AFC Championship game prior to Super Bowl XLIII.
No matter how you slice it, there will be no easy road to Super Bowl XLV for the Pittsburgh Steelers.