Nine wins weren’t enough to get the Pittsburgh Steelers into the playoffs last year, ending a run of four consecutive trips to the postseason.
Nine wins, however, could do the trick this year provided the Steelers get some help from teams playing the Tennessee Titans.
By winning for the sixth time in the past seven games Sunday, the Steelers improved to 7-5 and maintained their spot as the No. 6 seed — or second wild card — in the AFC playoff picture. Tennessee also is 7-5, but the Steelers have a better record in conference games (6-3 versus 5-4).
At 9-3, the Buffalo Bills have a two-game edge on the No. 5 seed and are one game behind the New England Patriots for the AFC East lead. They visit Heinz Field in two weeks for a game that could reshape the playoff race.
The AFC South-leading Houston Texans have an 8-4 record and lead the 7-5 Titans and 6-6 Indianapolis Colts. In the AFC West, the 6-6 Oakland Raiders are two games behind the division-leading Kansas City Chiefs.
According to various playoff predictor web sites, the Steelers’ chances for securing a postseason spot range from 55% (via the New York Times) to 40.3% (FootballOutsiders). The web site FiveThirtyEight.com gives the Steelers a 46% shot of reaching the postseason.
The Titans range from a low of 37% by the New York Times to a high of 52.3 by FootballOutsiders. The latter percentage is inflated because that website also takes into consideration Tennessee’s chances of winning the AFC South since the Titans play the Texans twice over the final three weeks.
If the Steelers go 2-2 in the home stretch of the season to reach nine wins, they would need the Titans to go no better than 2-2 with the Texans winning the division. The Titans, who face no teams with a losing record down the stretch, have the most difficult schedule of the wild-card contenders.
The Raiders, although facing long odds, play the Titans this weekend, then face a trio of teams with a combined 12-24 record.
The following is a look at each AFC wild-card hopeful as the NFL season enters its final quarter:
Remaining opponents: Ravens (10-2), at Steelers (7-5), at Patriots (10-2), Jets (4-8)
Conference record: 6-2
NFL rankings: Offense (17), defense (3), points (19)
Playoff percentages: 94 (New York Times), 93.5 (Football Outsider), 95 (FiveThirtyEight)
Remaining opponents: Broncos (4-8), at Titans (7-5), at Buccaneers (5-7), Titans (7-5)
Conference record: 7-2
NFL rankings: Offense (9), defense (27), points (10)
Playoff percentages: 90 (New York Times), 87.6 (Football Outsiders), 90 (FiveThirtyEight)
Remaining opponents: at Cardinals (3-8-1), Bills (9-3), at Jets (4-8), at Ravens (10-2)
Conference record: 6-3
NFL rankings: Offense (27), defense (5), points (24)
Playoff percentages: 55 (New York Times), 40.3 (Football Outsiders), 46 (FiveThirtyEight)
Remaining opponents: at Raiders (6-6), Texans (8-4), Saints (10-2), at Texans (8-4)
Conference record: 5-4
NFL rankings: Offense (24), defense (21), points (15)
Playoff percentages: 37 (New York Times), 52.3 (Football Outsiders), 42 (FiveThirtyEight)
Remaining opponents: at Buccaneers (5-7), at Saints (10-2), Panthers (5-7), at Jaguars (4-8)
Conference record: 5-6
NFL rankings: Offense (19), defense (13), points (17)
Playoff Percentages: 10 (New York Times), 11.2 (Football Outsiders), 10 (FiveThirtyEight)
Remaining opponents: Titans (7-5), Jaguars (4-8), at Chargers (4-8), at Broncos (4-8)
Conference record: 4-4
NFL rankings: Offense (16), defense (20), points (23)
Playoff percentages: 9 (New York Times), 10.5 (Football Outsiders), 11 (FiveThirtyEight)