For Steelers, NFL postseason hopes are simple: Win and get in
Brett Keisel offers this advice to his teammates as the Steelers crawl toward the finish line during one of the most unpredictable and perplexing seasons in their recent history.
“We've got to play better, especially coming down these final few games, or we'll be watching (the postseason),” he said. “If we win games, we'll be able to play in the tournament.”
The Steelers (7-6) appeared to be disinterested spectators during their 34-24 loss Sunday to the Chargers (5-8), so maybe this will get the attention of a team that plays its best against good teams: Their next two games are against the Cowboys (7-6) and Bengals (7-6), both of which have won four of five.
“We have to pick it up,” receiver Mike Wallace said. “We have to come to play every single game, no matter who we're playing. I think sometimes we don't play up to our skill set. We have a great team, and we know it. We have to get out of our own way.”
With three games remaining and the three AFC North teams effectively competing for the final two AFC playoff berths, the scenarios are many and variable.
All that can be decided this weekend is the division title. The Ravens (9-4) can claim it by beating the Broncos (10-3) in Baltimore on Sunday. They also clinch if the Steelers and Bengals lose.
The Steelers are in if they win three straight — they finish at home against the Browns (5-8) on Dec. 30. They also will get in by going 2-1 as long as they beat the Bengals at home Dec. 23 — the Bengals could finish no better than 9-7 and the Steelers would own the tiebreaker because they would have swept the season series.
That would appear to be the Steelers' easiest path to their ninth playoff appearance since 2001: Beat the Bengals and Browns.
But the Steelers could beat the Bengals yet not advance if they lose to the Cowboys and Browns, as long as the Bengals beat the Eagles and Ravens.
Conversely, the Steelers could lose the pivotal game against the Bengals but get in if they win their other two and the Bengals lose their other two.
And, in perhaps the most intriguing twist, the Bengals could win in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to finish 9-7 but still not claim the second AFC wild card if they lose at home to the Ravens on Dec. 30 and the Steelers beat the Cowboys and Browns. In that scenario, both teams would be 9-7 but the Steelers would advance based on their superior divisional record (3-3 to the Bengals' 2-4).
There are scenarios in which the Steelers get in with an 8-8 record, but no team in franchise history has made the playoffs with a .500 record.
Given that the Steelers beat the Ravens, Bengals, Giants (8-5) and Redskins (7-6) but lost to the Browns (6-8), Titans (4-9), Chargers (5-8) and Raiders (3-10), perhaps they need the challenge of playing a good team or two.
“When we're playing great teams like the Giants, we're fired up,” cornerback Keenan Lewis said. “When we play the teams with the lower records, we've got to find a way to play with the same intensity.”
Or, as linebacker Larry Foote said, “We have to correct this thing and make a commitment. We are who we are, and we're 7-6, so we have to turn it around.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.