The Pittsburgh Steelers may be greatly relieved to have finally clinched a playoff berth for the first time in the past three seasons, but there’s still plenty left to play for in the season finale when they host the Cincinnati Bengals, whom they blew out late to the tune of 42-21 on the road a few weeks ago.
A victory would elevate their record to 11-5 on the year after two consecutive campaigns of losing as many games as they had won. But the real value of that 11th victory, naturally, comes in the way in which it affects the playoff seeding.
Essentially, if the Steelers emerge victorious, they will finish as the third season in the AFC. If they lose, they will fall to the fifth seed.
The immediate disadvantage is, of course, the fact that the Steelers will have to go on the road for the first game of the playoffs, in what would be a rematch with the Colts, who are locked in as the fourth seed at 10-5 and the victor of the Steelers-Bengals game taking over the third seed.
The Steelers were able to beat the Colts at home in a shootout midway through the season, but it took one of the greatest quarterback performances in NFL history when Ben Roethlisberger threw for 522 yards and six touchdown passes without turning the ball over.
While it has slowly stabilized over the course of the regular season, it must also be taken into consideration that the Steelers have struggled to put up points away from Heinz Field, by and large. They are only averaging 22.4 points per game, and that includes a handful of defensive and special teams touchdowns. They have scored at least 27 points in their last three road games, but they have also been held to under 20 points four times.
Thus, if they win, they will have the advantage of playing host for their first playoff game since 2011. They have averaged nearly 33 points in front of the home crowd, even if they managed a season-worst 20 points on Sunday.
In addition, instead of playing the Colts, the Steelers would draw whoever wins the sixth and final playoff seed in the last week of the season, three of whom they have already beaten this season. The last team, the San Diego Chargers, are in the driver’s seat, with a victory securing the playoff spot regardless of the outcomes of the other games.
Finally, as the third seed, the Steelers are guaranteed of not having to play the New England Patriots until the AFC Championship, assuming that both teams advance that far. Should the Steelers emerge victorious in their first playoff game, they will take on the Denver Broncos, who have looked an awful lot more vulnerable than they once have. In other words, there’s still a lot to play for on Sunday.