After an 0-4 start and a 2-6 record at the halfway point of their season, the Pittsburgh Steelers seemed all but destined to be spectators and not on the field during the playoffs.
The Steelers needed a lot of help to still be in contention when Sunday's games wrapped. Not only did they need to win, they also needed the Miami Dolphins to fall to the Buffalo Bills, the New York Jets to defeat the Browns, the Baltimore Ravens to lose to the New England Patriots and the San Diego Chargers to win only one of their remaining two games.
All of those things occurred in Week 16, and now the Steelers are on the verge of achieving what seemed improbable just last month. And, in winning five of its last seven games, Pittsburgh looks like it's getting hot at just the right time.
|AFC Playoff Picture Through Week 16|
|1.||(z) Denver Broncos||12-3|
|2.||(z) New England Patriots||11-4|
|3.||(z) Cincinnati Bengals||10-5|
|4.||(z) Indianapolis Colts||10-5|
|5.||(x) Kansas City Chiefs||11-4|
|(z): Clinched division; (x): Clinched playoff berth.|
The win over Green Bay wasn't without its flaws, including two Steelers turnovers and questionable officiating. However, the Steelers managed to make crucial plays when they mattered, such as a Ben Roethlisberger touchdown pass to tight end Matt Spaeth followed up by a Cortez Allen pick-six of Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn in an 18-second span to give the Steelers a 10-point lead.
When the Packers closed the gap, the Steelers were going to settle for a field goal and a three-point lead, but an encroachment penalty on Packers linebacker Nick Perry gave the team a fresh set of downs. The Packers opted to give Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell a one-yard touchdown in order to get the ball back, but the plan backfired.
Though the Packers were able to get the ball down the field with a goal-to-go situation with 20 seconds left in the game, a Green Bay penalty caused a 10-second runoff. They were able to get off only one play, an incomplete pass for receiver Jarrett Boykin, and the Steelers got the needed win.
This was the kind of close, somewhat ugly game common to the end of the season, but it's a win the Steelers will gladly take. It keeps their playoff hopes alive for one more week. Though they don't control their own destiny, this is a far preferable situation to the one they were facing at midseason.
Looking at the games critical to a Steelers playoff berth, it's quite possible Pittsburgh will get a chance to play football in January. It hosts the hapless Browns, whose offense has stalled and whose defense struggles on third downs in the red zone and in the fourth quarter. Though a Steelers win isn't guaranteed next week, the odds certainly tip in their favor.
The Steelers also need the Jets to win out and the Dolphins to lose out, something that can happen all in one game as the Dolphins host the Jets. The Chargers host the 11-win Kansas City Chiefs, and the Steelers need San Diego to lose.
Finally, the Ravens, who are still in the margins of the playoff hunt, travel to Cincinnati to take on a Bengals team that hasn't lost at home this year.
|Teams Critical to Steelers' Playoff Chances|
|Team||Week 17 Opponent||Scenario|
|Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8)||vs. Cleveland Browns||Steelers Must Win|
|New York Jets (7-8)||at. Miami Dolphins||Jets Must Win|
|Miami Dolphins (8-7)||vs. New York Jets||Dolphins Must Lose|
|San Diego Chargers (8-7)||vs. Kansas City Chiefs||Chargers Must Lose|
|Baltimore Ravens (8-7)||at Cincinnati Bengals||Ravens Must Lose|
|All must happen for Steelers to clinch AFC sixth seed.|
As such, Week 17 seems to favor the Steelers.
With an 8-8 record, the same as last year, the Steelers could see a very different end to their season—in the playoffs, with a chance at a Super Bowl run. The 2005 iteration of this team was the AFC's sixth seed and went on to win the Super Bowl. And the last time the Steelers went to the Super Bowl, to cap off the 2010-11 season, they lost to the sixth-seeded Packers. It can be done.
That would be quite the outcome for a team that had been left for dead by everyone but itself. Though much of the machinations needed for the Steelers to make it to the playoffs this year are out of their control, they have managed to take care of the part under their control—winning.
What looked like too little, too late might turn out to be just enough for the Steelers at the exact right time.