Steelers can make the playoffs if...
The better the Pittsburgh Steelers play, the closer they get to being eliminated from the playoffs.
With five victories in six games, the Steelers (7-7) have the look of a team that could be very dangerous in the postseason. Their defense is playing at a championship-like level with one touchdown allowed in three games. Their running game is peaking with Willie Parker gaining 355 yards in his last two games.
Just like a year ago, when sweeping their final four regular season games launched them into the playoffs with considerable momentum, the Steelers look to be peaking as the postseason approaches.
"If we're still in it, we're going to keep playing," coach Bill Cowher said.
The problem is, of course, those playoffs are all but certain to exclude last season's Super Bowl champions.
The Steelers remained mathematically alive by beating Carolina 37-3 on Sunday, their third consecutive easy victory following home-field decisions over Cleveland (27-7) and Tampa Bay (20-3). However, the Steelers' win was effectively offset when the contending New York Jets (26-13 winners over Minnesota) and the Denver Broncos (37-20 winners at Arizona) also won.
As a result, the Steelers need a California election ballot-sized sequence of scenarios to play out and a lottery winner's luck to reach the playoffs.
The Steelers' playoff scenario at a glance heading into Sunday's home game against Baltimore (11-3):
- Their only chance to make the playoffs is as a sixth-seeded team. The winner of the Bengals-Broncos game on Sunday night will own the tiebreaker against them based on head-to-head play (Denver) or superior record against common opponents (Cincinnati).
- If Cincinnati and Jacksonville (8-6) win one more game each, the Steelers can't make the playoffs regardless of how they do in the final two games against the Ravens and the Bengals. Jacksonville owns the tiebreaker by beating the Steelers 9-0 on Sept. 18.
The Bengals (8-6), who lost to Indianapolis (10-3) 34-16 last night, finish at Denver on Sunday and at home against the Steelers on New Year's Eve. Jacksonville is at home Sunday against New England (10-4) and plays at Kansas City (7-7) on Dec. 31.
- Denver (8-6), which beat the Steelers 31-20 in Pittsburgh on Nov. 5, would also bypass Pittsburgh even if it loses to the Bengals by beating the 49ers (6-8) in Denver on Dec. 31.
- The Jets (8-6) would jump over the Steelers by beating Miami (6-8) on the road on Christmas and Oakland (2-12) at home on Dec. 31.
- The Steelers likely would win tiebreakers against Tennessee (7-7), Kansas City (7-7) or Buffalo (7-7) if any of those teams finish 9-7.
This season, they might miss the playoffs because they didn't win one more game -- such as that unthinkable 20-13 loss to the Raiders (2-12) on Oct. 29. Or their 41-38 overtime defeat in Atlanta the week before when a motion penalty on wide receiver Nate Washington in the closing seconds prevented a game-winning field goal try.
In both games, the Steelers were in position to win in the final two minutes and couldn't do so.
For now, the Steelers are clinging to the fact they are not yet eliminated.
"We still have life even though we're hanging on the respirator right now," linebacker James Farrior said. "You never know what is going to happen. All we can is control what we can."
Here's a closer look at AFC playoff standings:
|Broncos||8-6||7-4||vs. Bengals (8-6), vs. 49ers (6-8)|
|Bengals||8-6||6-4||at Broncos (8-6), vs. Steelers (7-7)|
|Jaguars||8-6||5-5||vs. Patriots (10-4), at Chiefs (7-7)|
|Jets||8-6||5-5||at Dolphins (6-8), vs. Raiders (2-12)|
|Bills||7-7||5-5||vs. Titans (7-7), at Ravens (11-3)|
|Steelers||7-7||4-6||vs. Ravens (11-3), at Bengals (8-6)|
|Titans||7-7||4-6||at Bills (7-7), vs. Patriots (10-4)|
|Chiefs||7-7||3-7||at Raiders (2-12), vs. Bengals (8-6)|
NFL Playoff Scenarios Playoff scenarios for week 16 as provided by the NFL: AFC EAST DIVISION New England can clinch division title with: 1) A win or tie. 2) A N.Y. Jets loss or tie. New England can clinch playoff berth if Cincinnati-Denver tie. AFC NORTH DIVISION Baltimore has clinched the division. Cincinnati can clinch playoff berth with: 1) A win, a Buffalo loss or tie and a N.Y. Jets loss. 2) A win, a Buffalo loss or tie and a Jacksonville loss. AFC SOUTH DIVISION Indianapolis has clinched division. Indianapolis can clinch a first-round bye with a win and a Baltimore loss. AFC WEST DIVISION San Diego has clinched the division. San Diego can clinch a first-round bye if Cincinnati defeats Indianapolis Monday night. San Diego can clinch first-round bye with: 1) A win. 2) An Indianapolis loss. 3) A tie and a Baltimore loss. 4) A tie and an Indianapolis tie. San Diego can clinch homefield advantage with: 1) A win and a Baltimore loss or tie. 2) A tie, Baltimore loss and an Indianapolis loss or tie. Denver can clinch playoff berth with: 1) A win, a Kansas City loss or tie and a N.Y. Jets loss. 2) A win, a Kansas City loss or tie and a Jacksonville loss. NFC EAST DIVISION Dallas has clinched a playoff berth and can clinch the division with a win. Philadelphia can clinch playoff berth with: 1) A win. 2) A tie and a N.Y. Giants loss or tie. 3) A tie and an Atlanta loss. New York Giants can clinch playoff berth with: 1) A win, Minnesota loss or tie, Atlanta loss, Philadelphia win or tie and a Seattle win or tie. 2) A win, Minnesota loss or tie, Atlanta loss, Philadelphia win or tie and a San Francisco win or tie. NFC NORTH DIVISION Chicago has clinched homefield advantage. NFC SOUTH DIVISION New Orleans has clinched the division. New Orleans can clinch a first-round bye with a win and a Dallas loss. NFC WEST DIVISION Seattle can clinch division with: 1) A win or tie. 2) A San Francisco loss or tie. ------ Arizona, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Miami, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Washington have been eliminated from playoff contention.