Predicting the playoffs is a tricky business in any sport and any time of the year. This year, the NFL playoff picture is still a mess, particularly in the AFC where as many as 10 teams are still viably in contention for a spot.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, last season's AFC Champion, is hoping to make a Super Bowl run again this year, but they'll have to navigate a difficult playoff circuit to get there. The AFC is a lot more competitive than it was last season even though a couple of the usually strong teams are out of the picture.
Here's a look at who the Steelers could face in the playoffs and how they match up.
The first part of navigating the playoffs is getting there. To project that, I used ESPN's excellent Playoff Machine tool, which allows a user to predict the finish of each game and then sets up the playoffs with all of the tiebreakers automatically. It's a beautiful tool.
I gave the Steelers a 12-4 record and predicted mostly favored teams in all other games. In case you were wondering, I gave the last loss in the San Francisco game even though I think the team could realistically run the table.
They factor out as a wild card and slot into the fifth spot. That's reasonable (I gave Baltimore a loss too to finish tied in record, but the Ravens still hold the tiebreaker) for where the team is at right now compared to the rest of the conference.
From there, I came up with the teams that made the playoffs in this scenario and also the teams that finished just out of the picture.
And away we go to the playoffs!
As a fifth seed, the Steelers would play whoever wins their division with the fourth-best record. Right now, that looks to be either the Oakland Raiders or Houston Texans. I'm also going to throw in the Denver Broncos and Tennessee Titans, who would be the likely winners should either of the first two stumble.
Houston seems to be the most likely first test for the Steelers, and there's some history here. The Texans beat the Steelers way back in Week 4 by a score of 17-10. Still, you have to think that regardless of who Houston gets for their quarterback that the Steelers can handle Houston now.
The Pittsburgh offense has rounded into a dangerous unit, and the Houston defense will not have pass rush guru Mario Williams this time around. He was the difference in Week 4.
This is door No. 2 for the Steelers. The Raiders match up very well with Pittsburgh. Offensively, the Raiders do a lot of running, something the Steelers haven't always defended well this season and are a good passing team with a quarterback (Carson Palmer) that knows Pittsburgh well.
Defensively, the Raiders boast a decent secondary with speedy corners, but Ben Roethlisberger and company should be able to handle that. This game could end up being very difficult if it happens, but the Steelers are a more complete team than the Raiders and can probably dominate the clock enough to win.
Here are our other two hopefuls.
Whether or not Tim Tebow is setting offense back 70 years, he's winning football games. That's all that really matters. He's also got the Broncos believing in themselves. That can be dangerous. Denver boasts a talented defense too that gets after quarterbacks and shuts down runners.
More than Tebow, that's winning Denver games. This has been a nightmare matchup for everyone lately, but I think if any defensvie coach can figure Tebow out, it would be Dick LeBeau, especially given the team's pass rush.
The Steelers thrashed the Titans in Week 5, but Tennessee has come a long way since. Chris Johnson is starting to get on track finally, and the Titans have found ways to win despite a dropoff in production from their receiver-less passing attack. Still, you'd have to think the Steelers could repeat at least part of their Week 5 performance to unseat the Titans.
The common thread I find in the wild-card matches is that the Steelers as a 12-4 Wild Card are better than any combination of teams that could grab the fourth seed or even the third seed. I don't see a problem with them getting through this round.
Now we have to throw in some more variables. In my original predictions, the Cincinnati Bengals were the sixth seed. The New York Jets are one other viable wild-card option (excluding the Broncos, Raiders, Titans and Texans, who could feasibly take a wild-card berth if they miss out on their division).
Assuming the Jets or Bengals face off against one of the likely third seeds (Oakland or Houston), either could move on to the next round and face the top seed. That would mean the Steelers would face the second seed.
If the sixth seed team loses, the Steelers would face the third seed. That would mean one of the teams we've already mentioned. That's more attractive than either likely matchup for a second seed: New England or Baltimore.
Let's look at each of those teams individually.
Offense vs. Pittsburgh
The Steelers did a great job in Week 8 of keeping the Patriots off the field. When they were on the field, the Steelers took away Tom Brady's favorite targets (Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez) and made him throw to Chad Ochocino or Deion Branch.
The results were that Brady, while he still completed plenty of passes, didn't get the ball into the hands of his playmakers.
The Steelers' defense still matches well with New England thanks to an above-average secondary that's featuring the improved William Gay and Keenan Lewis alongside Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu. The pass rush also seems a likely plus against a Patriots line that is lacking some punch these days.
Defense vs. Pittsburgh
The Steelers already proved what they can do against New England's defense but will have to revamp their approach again because Bill Belichick doesn't let things happen the same way twice. Their best bet is to lean on deep passes and make New England's corners chase Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
I also think that Pittsburgh could be effective on the ground here. The game on offense against New England is to always take the ball out of Tom Brady's hands for as long as possible. That's how you beat the Patriots.
Defense vs. Pittsburgh
The Baltimore defense had a lot more trouble with the Steelers in their second game with Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger was able to be effective and get the ball to his receivers regularly and made just enough plays to put the Steelers in position to win.
The running game wouldn't be big against the Ravens, but play-action might be. The Ravens like to rush the passer continually in the same fashion as the Steelers, so trying to fake them and freeze them is a good ploy. Also, throwing into the blitz is always a good choice. The Baltimore secondary is passable, but doesn't have a real weapon beyond Ed Reed right now.
Offense vs. Pittsburgh
The only way to beat the Ravens will be to stop playing the soft-zone coverage, particularly on third down. Pressing the Ravens receivers and keeping them against man coverage will force Joe Flacco to throw into tighter windows. He hasn't shown a lot of stomach for that, and he makes more mistakes that way.
The big key is on third down. The Steelers have to continue to bring the pressure on third down. They failed to do that in their second Baltimore match and found themselves allowing 14 third-down conversions. If they stop a few of those, Baltimore never could have had a shot to win the game late.
So let's get really wild and assume the Steelers get past the Patriots or Ravens. They'd then face the other remaining AFC seed. It could only be one of the teams already mentioned or the New York Jets. If it's the Jets, the game would be a complete rematch of last year's game in Pittsburgh.
Here's a look at how it could unfold, although this scenario is very, very unlikely.
New York Jets
Offensively, the Jets play right into Pittsburgh's strength. They throw the ball well but don't run much with Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson. Neither is a real threat to Pittsburgh.
The passing game is better, but Mark Sanchez has a bad history of getting harassed by pass-rushers, and he has a lot of trouble with defenses that blitz regularly.
On defense, the Jets do pose a threat with an above-average secondary, but their pass rush isn't nearly as good. Ben Roethlisberger is deadly with any amount of time, so it's likely he could get plenty of plays off.
The Steelers also spread the field better than anyone in the AFC, so that would work against the Jets, who really only have one big playmaker in pass coverage.
I don't want to look too far into the crystal ball, but if Pittsburgh gets back to the Super Bowl, here's who they might end up facing and a brief snapshot of that matchup:
A rematch of Super Bowl XLV would be interesting, especially given Pittsburgh willingness to throw the ball and Green Bay's awful pass defense. Still, this is a nightmare game for Pittsburgh's defense in some ways, but a game that could be won even if it became a shootout.
I'd say the Saints are a more likely Super Bowl team than San Francisco because of their offense, but New Orleans would have a difficult time stopping the Pittsburgh offense with the weak play at corner they've been getting. Still, the Saints offense would make this a track meet unless the Steelers could run a lot of long drives.
San Francisco 49ers
We'll get a look at these two teams in Week 15, but the Steelers are a great matchup for San Francisco. The 49ers offense is predicated on running the ball, something Pittsburgh can stop.
Their defense is good, but they haven't really faced an offense like Pittsburgh's this season and would have to face the two teams above if they hoped to get to Indianapolis.
The common thread with each of the potential Super Bowl matchups is that the Steelers have the potential to carry out long drives to keep the most dangerous components of their opponent on the bench. The most difficult team to do this against would be San Francisco given their defense, but the 49ers offense would be hard-pressed to keep up with a fast-attacking Pittsburgh team.