After losing on Thanksgiving Day to the Baltimore Ravens, it would be easy to dismiss the Steelers from any playoff discussion, but doing so would be premature at best.
Going into this week’s games, the Steelers were tied with a handful of teams at 5-6 for the final AFC playoff position. The Steelers biggest hurdle was the Baltimore Ravens, and although Thursday’s loss puts the Steelers a game back with just four to play, all is not lost.
The truth of the matter is the sixth seed in the AFC is a competition between about six extremely inconsistent teams. The few teams in that bunch that do appear to be playoff material face extremely tough schedules that may prevent them from making it into the show.
For instance, the Baltimore Ravens’ closing schedule features the Lions, Patriots and Bengals in the season’s final three weeks. It’s hard to imagine the Ravens being favored in any of those matchups. Even if they’re able to play well, those games could easily account for two losses.
The San Diego Chargers, who have played streaky throughout the season don’t have it much easier either. They get the Bengals on Sunday, followed by the Giants, Broncos, Raiders and the Chiefs. Again, that’s no cupcake schedule.
The Steelers’ schedule, by contrast doesn’t seem quite as daunting. They play the Dolphins, Bengals, Packers and Browns. The Bengals and Packers could be difficult opponents, but there’s no guarantee the Packers will even get Aaron Rodgers back on the field this season, which could make the Steelers’ matchup with the Bengals the lone difficult game remaining on their schedule.
The AFC wildcard race is in a sad state. There’s no doubt that that fifth seed will be either the Chiefs or the Broncos, but the sixth seed will likely be determined by one team’s ability to play above their own ability. At 6-6, the Ravens now hold the inside track to win their way into the playoffs, but dismissing the Steelers would be a mistake.
For Pittsburgh to make a late push into the playoffs, they first have to find a way to get off to quick starts. Against the Ravens, they were able to outplay Baltimore during the entire second half, but because they weren’t able to produce anything in the first half, their deficit was just too much to overcome.
It would be easy to blame the injury bug for the Steelers’ problems this season, but if there was ever a team well adapted to play through injuries, it would be the Steelers. They’ve become one of the scrappiest teams in the NFL. Winning is seldom done in attractive fashion, but they’re right in the thick of the wildcard race. Losing to the Ravens was a setback, but it wasn’t an elimination game. The Steelers still have four weeks to put themselves in position for the playoffs, and considering who they’re up against, I wouldn’t be willing to bet against them just yet.