Fourth Quarter – The Road To The Playoffs

By Matthew Marczi

The Pittsburgh Steelers are still in pretty decent shape to make the playoffs, even if they lose to the Green Bay Packers in Week 16.

No, really.

Are you done laughing?

Okay, hear me out. The following scenario obviously assumes that Pittsburgh is able to take care of business against its other three opponents, which are all home games against the Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, and Cleveland Browns. I think at least most could agree that those are winnable games.

The Steelers got a lot of help yesterday from the other AFC teams in the race for the final Wildcard spot. The New York Jets, San Diego Chargers, and Tennessee Titans all entered the day at 5-6 and lost. The Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns also both lost this week, sending them to 4-8 and pretty close to out of the picture.

Winning Sunday was the Dolphins (over the Jets, so one of them had to win). The Dolphins winning favored the Steelers because they still have yet to play them, and, let’s be honest, if they don’t beat the Dolphins their chances are pretty close to shot anyway.

Now, the Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens lead at 6-6. In this scenario, the Steelers obviously take care of the Dolphins next week, which would send them to 6-7 and would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Steelers.

As for the Ravens, their final stretch of the season is a tough one, and I don’t believe they’re playing well enough to come out of the final three games without two losses. After the cupcake that is Minnesota next week, they have to travel to Detroit, which is a team as good as any when they’re not tripping over their own feet.

After that, they have the New England Patriots, and finish up in Cincinnati. Even if they come out of that stretch with an 8-8 record, the Steelers would win the tiebreaker by virtue of a superior record among common opponents, as they have already lost to the Buffalo Bills, the Browns, and the Packers. The only team the Ravens have a victory over that the Steelers have played and lost to so far is the Bengals.

The Chargers still have yet to play the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs again. Even if they go 3-1 in those games, the Steelers still hold the tiebreaker at 8-8 with a loss to the Packers because the Chargers are 3-6 in the conference right now.

The Dolphins, meanwhile, still play the Patriots again, as well as the Bills away and the Jets at home. The Patriots and Broncos are still vying for the top seed, so they won’t be lying down any time soon. I fully expect the Dolphins to be 6-8 two weeks from now.

Now, the Titans are the team that could be concerning, because their last two games could be considered cupcakes with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Houston Texans on the docket, and this is because they’re the only team in the running with a head-to-head tiebreaker on the Steelers.

However, over the next two weeks, they have the Broncos and the overachieving Arizona Cardinals, who are currently 7-5 and have a legitimate defense. The Titans also have Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. Thus, I believe they could very well be 5-9 and out of the mix in two weeks’ time.

Even if they are not, however, there is a scenario in which the Steelers and Titans can both finish 8-8 and the Steelers still advance. If the Dolphins, Titans, and Steelers all finish 8-8, the Steelers advance. Because the Steelers would have the better conference record (and the head-to-head tiebreaker would not apply in a three-team tie), the Steelers would eliminate the Titans in the third step of the tiebreaking procedure, and would then beat the Dolphins by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker (which now applies now that all but two teams have been eliminated).

Miami is the only team with whom that would work, by the way, because the Titans would own a head-to-head sweep with the Jets or the Chargers. Were it the Ravens, the division tiebreaker would apply first, sending it to a head-to-head with the Steelers and Titans, which they would lose.

As a matter of fact, the Steelers, Ravens, Jets, Dolphins, Titans, and Chargers could all finish with an 8-8 record and the Steelers would win out in the scenario in which they finish 3-1 with an out-of-conference loss to the Packers. I’ll let the magic of computer simulation explain to you why that is:

[Pittsburgh] Wins tie break over Miami based on head-to-head win percentage. Wins tie break over Tennessee and San Diego based on best win percentage in conference games. Division tie break was initially used to eliminate NY Jets (Miami wins tie break over NY Jets based on head-to-head win percentage). Division tie break was initially used to eliminate Baltimore (Pittsburgh wins tie break over Baltimore based on best win percentage in common games).

Long story short, don’t give up hope just yet, Pittsburgh. The Steelers actually have as good a shot as any of these teams, the way I see it. Keep in mind these are all teams that are .500 or below we’re dealing with, and none of them certainly look like they’re about to go on a run for the ages. These teams are going to be losing games between now and the end of the season, so there’s still reason yet to keep the faith.

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