Miami, New Orleans, Cincinnati. Three close games. For the Steelers, a string of road games from Oct. 24-Nov. 8 that resulted in a few things of note. First, Pittsburgh lost a number of its starters to injury (Smith, Keisel, Starks, etc.). Second, it was probably the high-point of the season, you know, until New England came to town. Lastly, and most importantly, it secured what the Steelers are the ONLY team in the NFL about to enjoy: Three of their final four games at home to end the regular season.
The permutations and variance in playoff scenarios is still too complex to map out a probable course for Pittsburgh. Yes, The Steelers need to handle their business and just beat the Bengals this week. But, the separation between the teams currently listed as "in" the playoff picture and on the outside is surprisingly pronounced this season. It seems reasonable to say that 9-7 won't be good enough to punch a dance card in the AFC. This leaves only four teams with a shot to upend those currently "in," ten total teams with a chance at all.
Let's look at em:
We shouldn't be facing these guys until the AFC Championship, so long as we keep our #2 seed. And we have an extraordinarily good shot to do that, even if we drop one of our final four. See how that schedule is a big deal now? Sure, they blew us out on our home turf and Brady has an all-time NFL record home winning record going, but...eh. Let's just worry about them if/when we need to.
NY Jets (9-3):
Only team on this list we'll face before the playoffs. I'll reserve most of my judgment until then, suffice it to say: They're better than 147-2 or whatever it was they lost by last week. Some have postulated that New England "exposed" the Jets' weaknesses and that they've been mostly smoke and mirrors this season, eeking out wins against less than stellar opponents. But let's be careful not to buy in to that ideology. As far as I'm concerned, a win against NY give us the #2 seed in two weeks. Beat the Bengals for a chance to earn that 2 seed.
Kansas City (8-4):
The only team that could over take us for a first round bye if we lose one game. Of course, they would have to run the table to do so, starting with a trip to San Diego this Sunday. Man, I hope they win that one. We'll get to this later, but I'm actually rooting against San Diego harder than any other team right now. Plus, I would LOVE to face KC in round 2 of the playoffs. I'm not overlooking them, by any means as McCluster, Bowe, Charles & Meoakikiki are legit offensive weapons. Still, Matt Cassell? Muhahaha...
The idea that we'll face the Ravens in round 2 of the playoffs here at Heinz makes the pubes on the back of your throat stand up. What a scenario. It would definitely be the biggest game since the 2008 AFC Championship at Heinz. But, Baltimore heads to Houston this week, not as simple a matchup as the two teams' records would indicate. If the Ravens would somehow lose to Arian, Andre & Co. they'd face Drew Breesus coming to town the following week. At that point, they might be looking at Indy or San Diego in their rear view. Still, don't you almost get the feeling Steelers/Ravens III is preordained?
The current place-holder atop the AFC South. I still have visions of David Garrard scrambling (via an obvious un-flagged hold) away the Steelers' playoff aspirations as a wild card in 2008. And MJD is a legit runner. But, the next two teams on this, and I cannot stress this enough, they would be a GODSEND as division champs. We would match up awesome with them as they don't have a legit first receiver (Sims-Walker is poor and Mike Thomas has come on but as a #2) and they're all ground game. For now: Go Jags.
How could the Raiders make the playoffs, you ask??? A game against the Jags this week (which they're slight underdogs), then rudderless Denver and Indy. Indy has 57 injuries and could be eliminated by, well...tonight. That would leave them with KC to cap of the season in an awesome scenario. Oakland showed a lot of spunk taking down San Diego last week. Considering the other 6-6 squads, I'd pull for them IF they take down Jacksonville. Still, it's difficult to think that the Raiders could still run the table to sneak up.
San Diego (6-6):
Man, Chargers' loss to Oakland was huge. If you look back, I've oscillated my take on the Chargers all season. From scared to sure they were out of it. I'm sure you've seen the stats. #1 in total defense. #2 in total offense. If push came to shove, I'd have confidence in the Steelers' ability to take them down at Heinz, but I REALLY don't want it to come to that. Next to Baltimore, I really fear these guys the most. I'll be rooting against them second only to pulling for Pittsburgh. Amazing. Let's just err on the side of caution and get them out of the discussion.
Another team that I won't be happy until they're dead and buried. I don't know how you could be a Manning fan unless you are a) from Indy or b) a Manning. Yes, the Colts are injured (they just brought Dominic Rhodes back FROM THE UFL!) and clearly, Pay-Pey is struggling, but the suffering cannot be too great.
Surprised to these guys on this list? I know I am. The Dolphins' D (ranked 4th overall) is keeping them in games. I'm thinking their season will be over this week as they head to the Meadowlands to be the Jets rebound bitches, though. I would be remiss, however, if I didn't mention that their two games after are Buffalo & Detroit...if they can upend the Jets (hilariously), that'd give'em something to play/injure the Patriots for in Week 17.
The Moral Of The Story:
I can't work the percentages, but I think it's looking a lot like NYJ & BAL will be your wild cards. It's also looking like they are better than the remaining teams on this list, San Diego excepted. The natural conclusion to draw there is that we'll face one of them for our first playoff game. I would vastly prefer facing the Jets over the Ravens, if for no other reason than when we play the latter injuries tend to mount. Plus, can you imagine Sanchez trying to elude our defense right now? OF COURSE, the only thing that matters and should be focused on by the Steelers right now is winning the game in front of them. But, it's intriguing to look at what lay ahead and to get figure out who to pull for in EVERY game. So go root for your Steelers. And Jacksonville. And Kansas City. And Peyton Manning to throw 37 more picks.