Over the course of the past two days, we’ve taken a look at the current state of the AFC in terms of how the playoff picture is shaping up with five games left to play in the regular season, and how the Pittsburgh Steelers fit into that picture.
As it turns out, the Steelers are sitting fairly well, considering that they currently hold the fourth-best record in the conference behind only the New England Patriots, the Denver Broncos, and the AFC North division leaders, the Cincinnati Bengals.
The problem is that there is no less than five other teams who also share that same winning record at 7-4, three games over .500, which certainly seems to be an unprecedented, or near-unprecedented, phenomenon for a conference this late in the season.
Joining the Steelers are 7-4 are two division rivals, the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers have already played their slate of games with both teams, splitting with each and holding a 2-2 division record.
The AFC South presumptive winners, the Indianapolis Colts, are also 7-4. The Colts fell in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, but given that they are likely to be division winners, the only way this becomes relevant is if the Steelers can win the AFC North. The head-to-head advantage would likely net the Steelers a higher seed should the two teams finish the year with an identical record.
The other two 7-4 teams both come from the AFC West in the form of the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Diego Chargers. They are the only other non-division leaders in the conference with a 7-3 record that have as few conference losses as the Steelers at three, though Pittsburgh’s 6-3 AFC record ranks as the third-highest conference win percentage behind the Patriots and Broncos through 11 games.
With all that out of the way, it’s time to break out the schedules and start playing prognosticator. While the Steelers have three of five games left against opponents with a 7-4 record or better (the Chiefs and the Bengals twice), two of those games are at home.
The Ravens also finish with three home games, including Sunday’s game against the Chargers, which will, obviously knock one team or the other down to five losses (barring a tie, which from this point on will go without saying).
The Ravens also wrap up their season against the Browns in Baltimore. The Ravens won the first matchup on a late field goal, but are still just 2-3 in the conference. They also have two road games against the 6-5 Dolphins and the 5-6 Texans. I would be surprised if they finish the year better than 10-6, though they’ve continue to surprise throughout the season.
As for the Browns, they finish up the year with the aforementioned pivotal game against the Ravens, and they also have a rematch in Cleveland against the Bengals. The Brown embarrassed Cincinnati on their home turf, and that could be an exciting revenge game. Their next game will be in Buffalo against the Bills team that just looked dominant against a poor team that nonetheless beat the Steelers, and they draw the Colts at home the week after. The Browns have not looked so impressive since beating the Bengals, and are also, you know, the Browns. They may also draw out at 10-6 by the end of the season.
The Chiefs and Chargers both have a game remaining against the Broncos, both of whom lost in Denver. The Chiefs play the Broncos this week, and follow that up with the Cardinals, who despite losing their quarterback have the best record in football. They finish up playing against the Chargers, whom they already beat earlier this year, but their penultimate game is a pivotal game against the Steelers. This season could end with single-digit victories in Kansas City if you look back at some of the teams that they beat to boost their record.
Last among the competitors is the Chargers, which, as previously mentioned, has some tough games ahead against the Broncos as well as two other 7-4 competitors in the Chiefs and the Ravens. To make matters worse, they also play the Patriots and a 49ers team that is starting to look more itself on the defensive side of the ball. This is the most difficult remaining schedule out of all competitors, and the final game between the Chiefs and Chargers may determine whether or not San Diego even finishes up above .500.
Of course, it’s rather unlikely that the Steelers run the table, either. While I expect them to be able to get past the two NFC South teams left on their schedule, only one of which is on the road, I believe they will lose at least one of their games against the Bengals, and it will likely be the first one on the road.
My feeling is that they will finish 11-5 and win the AFC North, as I believe the Bengals will lose at least two more games, including one to the Steelers, with the other coming to either the Browns or the Broncos.