The Pittsburgh Steelers are on a two-game win streak with their 37-27 upset of the Detroit Lions on Sunday. The win improved their record to 4-6, even with the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns, but they hold the advantage over the two AFC North rivals in the playoff hunt.
With the AFC wild-card race extremely tight and one spot up for grabs—at this point, either the Kansas City Chiefs or Denver Broncos will have the five seed come January—it's quite possible that the Steelers could have the sixth spot in the playoffs.
But can the Steelers do something even more impressive—unseat the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals over the last six games of the season?
The Bengals also had a win on Sunday, a 41-20 defeat of the Browns. They now have a 7-4 record, having broken a two-game losing streak at an opportune time against at divisional opponent. But their lead isn't one the Steelers cannot close in on, especially considering how poorly Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has been playing.
|AFC North Standings, Through Week 11|
|*Steelers have tiebreak over Browns and Ravens|
The question is whether the Steelers' two weeks of success is sustainable. The Steelers went into halftime against the Lions down 27-20, and having given up an astounding 379 yards of total offense in the first 30 minutes of regulation.
The defense stiffened, giving up only 72 yards to Detroit in the second half, and the offense was nearly flawless, with no turnovers and just one sack allowed. However, the Steelers will need to play as they did in the final half of Sunday's game for entire games down the stretch to catch up to the Bengals.
It was a good indication of what the Steelers are capable of accomplishing when they all are on the same page—now, they just have to do it again, and again, and again to overtake the Bengals and improbably be AFC North champions.
Improbable, because the Steelers started the season 0-4. Only one team, the 1992 San Diego Chargers, has made the playoffs after starting 0-4, and they went on to win the AFC West. That's just how powerful the odds are against the Steelers to make this postseason push, let alone win their division. While it can be done, it won't be easy.
The reasons are easy to explain, though—the first being the Steelers must continue to play as they did in the second half against the Lions on a weekly basis in order to win. The second is that they have to also rely on the Bengals to falter, which is something almost entirely out of their control. Almost—because the Steelers face the Bengals in Week 15, and depending on how the intervening weeks play out, that meeting could be for all the divisional marbles.
For the Steelers to make sure that scenario plays out, they need to win their next three games. First up are the Cleveland Browns, in Cleveland, in Week 12. Then, the Steelers travel to Baltimore to take on their rival Ravens. Finally, they host the Miami Dolphins, the current seventh-seed in the AFC, before seeing the Bengals.
It's easy to forget how the Steelers have struggled this season after their masterful handling of the Lions in the second half of Sunday's game. Despite Ben Roethlisberger's four passing touchdowns to zero interceptions on Sunday, the Steelers still rank 31st in red-zone touchdown percentage, at 42.42 percent. Their offense remains unbalanced, with the Steelers averaging 266.7 passing yards per game to just 76.5 yards rushing.
On defense, the Steelers did tighten the ship in the second half against the Lions, but the fact that they gave up 27 points and 379 yards in the first half further illustrates how they have been atypically erratic and soft at times this season. They allowed 610 yards of total offense to the New England Patriots in Week 9 and seemed destined for the same fate against Detroit. The fact that they didn't is encouraging, but now they have to keep from regressing.
At least the Steelers have perhaps just one dangerous quarterback ahead, should Aaron Rodgers recover from his collarbone fracture in time for Pittsburgh's Week 16 meeting with the Green Bay Packers. They could also have the division wrapped up by that time, not making the game's outcome a major issue.
As mentioned earlier, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has not been having a good three-week stretch. He's thrown five touchdowns to eight interceptions, his yards per attempt have declined all the way to 3.84 against the Browns on Sunday and he threw for only 93 yards in the win.
|Steelers & Bengals, Remaining Schedule|
|13||@ Ravens||@ Chargers|
|14||vs. Dolphins||vs. Colts|
|15||vs. Bengals||@ Steelers|
|16||@ Packers||vs. Vikings|
|17||vs. Browns||vs. Ravens|
|The AFC North title could be decided in Week 15|
The Bengals were able to blow out the Browns thanks to their defense and special teams, with the former scoring two touchdowns and the latter, one. Dalton did contribute, with three touchdowns of his own, but he completed only 48.1 percent of his passes and was not a liability simply because he ceased to be a factor in his team's success after the Bengals went into halftime with a 31-13 lead.
The Bengals won't be able to protect their lead in the division with a quarterback playing the way Dalton has in the past three weeks. They were bailed out by their defense and special teams against the Browns, but it's unrealistic to expect the same will happen on Dalton's down days for the remainder of the season. Dalton needs his team's Week 12 bye to get his mind and arm right. If not, the top spot in the division could fall from their grasp, and presently, the Steelers seem the best-poised team to pick it up.
The fact that the Steelers have four in-division games ahead helps their cause as well. The Bengals have two—that Week 15 game in Pittsburgh and Week 17 against the Ravens. Those four games mean two more opportunities for the division's leader to improve its AFC North win-loss record.
Should the Steelers and Bengals end the season with identical records, the divisional records will be the first tiebreaker. The Steelers, at 1-1 in the AFC North, simply have more chances to improve over the 2-2 in-the-division Bengals. The scheduling is on the Steelers' side in the final weeks of the season.
Aside from Week 15, the Steelers should not concern themselves with what the Bengals do or do not do. They should instead simply focus on how to be the team they were against the Lions in the second half of their Week 11 victory from start to finish in each game ahead. If they can, they'll almost certainly win. And wins, of course, put them in a better position once it's time for their all-important meeting with the Bengals next month.
A window of opportunity has opened for the Steelers in the AFC North. They just need to seize it. The win over the Lions must be a jumping-off point for the team and not just a fluky moment. If they can build off of Sunday's success, the Steelers could certainly pull off a feat no team has in over 20 years.