Everything was set up perfectly for the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into Week 14 except for one thing—they didn’t take care of their own business.
A win against the Chargers would have gone a long way in the Steelers efforts to overtake the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North crown and a much desired home playoff game.
While the division title may now be out of reach, so may the fifth seed in the AFC, as the Indianapolis Colts picked up a big victory to increase their lead over the Steelers in the wild-card hunt by two games.
The Steelers did get some help after the Cincinnati Bengals lost in the final seconds to the Dallas Cowboys, leaving both the Steelers and Bengals sitting at 7-6 with three games to go. The Week 16 matchup between these two teams will likely decide the sixth seed in the AFC.
If the Steelers win that game, they will have to take on the AFC’s third seed in the first round of the playoffs and right now, there appears to be three teams in contention for that spot—assuming the Houston Texans earn the conference’s top seed.
Here is a breakdown of these three potential playoff foes for Pittsburgh should they get the sixth seed.
The Baltimore Ravens are falling—and they are falling fast.
Already the worst of the AFC division leaders, the Ravens have lost back-to-back games for the first time since Joe Flacco took over as the starting quarterback.
Now standing at 9-4, the Ravens find themselves as the fourth seed in the AFC, and they may be locked into that spot with upcoming games at home against the Denver Broncos and New York Giants as well as a road game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
If they are able to land the No. 3 seed, they will most likely face the Steelers—for a third time this season—and that is something that the Steelers should be hoping for.
Pittsburgh is 1-1 against Baltimore this year, playing both games without Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers lost a tight game at home 13-10 while winning 23-20 in Baltimore. A third meeting should favor the Steelers, even if it was played in Baltimore.
There is no team in the AFC that the Steelers know better and that they match up so well against—particularly this season.
Pittsburgh’s defense has done a solid job containing Ray Rice, and Joe Flacco has struggled against the NFL’s top pass defense.
But the real advantage for the Steelers comes against a weakened Ravens defense.
Baltimore does not have the same bite on defense that they have had in the past, and if the Steelers can get their offense in gear, they should have no problems moving the ball up and down the field on the Ravens.
With Roethlisberger behind center, he should have no issues picking apart a porous Baltimore secondary.
Even the Steelers offensive line has had success controlling the line of scrimmage against the Ravens, so Roethlisberger should have time to throw and they could establish at least a respectable ground game.
As strange as it may sound, the Steelers may want to actually root for the Ravens to win some games so that Baltimore is their most likely first round opponent.
Could the Steelers return to the same place that their season ended last year?
It is very possible, as the 10-3 Denver Broncos should finish as the AFC’s second or third best team.
The Steelers lost their season opening game to the Broncos 31-19 after blowing a five-point fourth quarter lead.
A return trip to Denver would not be easy, as the Steelers would, once again, be without Ryan Clark—who has arguably been their best defensive player this year—and they would have to face the league’s seventh best passing offense behind Peyton Manning.
Manning has had an excellent season and has already had his way with the Steelers. He completed 19-of-26 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns against Pittsburgh in the opener.
Even with outstanding play from their defensive backs, the Steelers could be picked apart by Manning once more unless the pass rush was able to get to him.
Demaryius Thomas is one player that the Steelers would have to key on. He has had his way with Pittsburgh’s defense in the last two meetings between these two teams with nine receptions for 314 yards and two touchdowns.
Besides the offense, the Broncos’ defense gave the Steelers fits all night in the opener as well.
Roethlisberger threw one interception and the ground game was only able to gain 75 yards with an average of 2.9 yards per carry.
The Broncos’ pass rush was fairly effective, especially late in the game when rookie Mike Adams had to step in.
Denver sacked Roethlisberger five times, including two by Von Miller.
The combination of Miller and Elvis Dumervil will give the Steelers plenty to worry about, though the offensive line should be much better prepared the second time around.
While this is not an impossible game to win, losing Clark and having to face a quarterback as good as Manning would be a lot to overcome.
The Steelers would have to exorcise their playoff demons if they had to face the AFC’s current No. 3 seed in the playoffs.
Even though the Steelers had their way with the Patriots last year in a 25-17 victory, Tom Brady has a 6-2 career record against the Steelers and has never lost to them at home.
In last season's showdown, the Steelers out-Patrioted the Patriots, after having Roethlisberger throw the ball 50 times in a short passing attack that worked to near perfection.
The problem is that Brady can execute that style of attack better than anyone, especially when he has time to throw the ball.
With the Steelers having trouble getting to the quarterback again this season, Brady could potentially pick apart the Steelers’ top-rated pass defense.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau would have to develop quite a scheme to shut down the Patriots’ offensive attack, which has become quite balanced this year—New England ranks sixth in passing yards and eighth in rushing.
The Patriots have put up at least 30 points eight times already this season, including four games with over 40 points scored and two games with over 50 points.
Pittsburgh cannot match that type of offensive firepower.
Even though the Patriots have the league’s 29th-ranked pass defense, the Steelers have not demonstrated that they can score with the elite offenses in this league.
Roethlisberger may be able to put up yards against New England’s defense, but could he put up enough points?
Pittsburgh has only put up 30 points once and that came in a loss to the Oakland Raiders.
On paper, the Patriots would present the toughest game for the Steelers in the first round.
Not only would the Steelers have to overcome the tremendous talent of Brady and the Patriots offense, but they would also have the mental hurdle to overcome of actually defeating New England in the playoffs.