With the final week of the season offering more clarity in the playoff race – and the comfort of knowing the Pittsburgh Steelers will be advancing – we can take a look at how the playoff seedings may look after Sunday. And who the Steelers should be “rooting” for.
If the Steelers beat the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, they will be the three seed hosting the six. If they lose, they will be the five seed heading to the four. That fourth spot has been locked up by the Indianapolis Colts, unable to wiggle out of that seeding regardless of what happens.
There are a select few, including ESPN’s Matt Williamson, who think it’s in the Steelers best interest to play the Colts on Wildcard weekend. To an extent, that idea is understandable considering how disjointed they looked in a 42-7 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. But to give up the three seed and a home playoff game? No dice.
Given that, a third seeded Steelers’ team would face one of four opponents: the Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers, or Houston Texans.
It would be ideal to face a Texans team starting a quarterback, Case Keenum, most football fans forgot existed in the league. But their odds of making the playoffs are slim, needing a win Sunday plus losses by the Ravens and Chargers. Not impossible but not exactly likely either. We’ll eliminate them from the equation, leaving us with the aforementioned other three teams.
It might be easy to pick the Chiefs as the team the Steelers would want to host. A weak passing offense and a defense that doesn’t pick off many passes looks good on paper.
But I’ll pass.
Teams that play fundamental football: strong in the red zone, rarely turn the ball over, and offer a ferocious pass rush, are never easy outs. The Steelers did a good job of keeping Justin Houston and Tamba Hali in check Sunday, but odds are they wouldn’t get that lucky again.
The Ravens were horrific Sunday against the Texans. Joe Flacco the worst offender; a 42% completion percentage and three interceptions to his name. And the Steelers won by 20 in their last matchup.
But I’ll pass.
The Steelers bring the best out in the Ravens and as sweet as it would be to send Baltimore packing, it would be just as difficult. Another tough out. A bruising game that will probably wind up being close. Meaning a turnover, an especially egregious penalty, a missed field goal, can be the difference between advancing and going home.
And Flacco’s stats in his last two playoff trips: 14 touchdowns, one interception.
That leaves us with the Chargers. That’s the team Steelers’ fans should hope to see two weeks from now.
Granted, this should all come with the preface that I haven’t actually “scouted” the Chargers yet. That obviously won’t happen unless the Steelers really are facing them. Maybe after then, I’ll think they’re a rock solid team. Maybe then, you’ll laugh at me for writing this article.
Philip Rivers is a really good quarterback. Maybe a great one. Top eight in this league without question.
But he’s still a quarterback dealing with a bulging disk in his back. He’s still a QB who looked downright awful through two-and-half quarters against the San Francisco 49ers. He’s going to take another beating in Week 17 against the Chiefs. A win Sunday will probably come at a high cost to their QBs health. And there won’t be any time for Rivers to rest.
Running back Ryan Matthews could be back for a playoff game. But in what condition? He hasn’t practiced since Week 14, an ankle injury his latest ailment. Branden Oliver stole the spotlight early in the year but has just as quickly faded, failing to rush for more than 50 yards since mid-October.
Wide receiver Keenan Allen has an even unlikelier chance to play. Sidelined with a broken collarbone, he’s left the Chargers top wide receiver threat to Malcolm Floyd and Eddie Royal.
Antonio Gates is still a threat but not the elite tight end he used to be.
Dontrelle Inman was one of the heroes last week. And he hadn’t caught a pass in a college or NFL game since 2010.
The Chargers are working on their fifth center of the season. And you thought the Steelers used to have bad luck with the offensive line.
Their left tackle is King Dunlap. He’s 6’9. James Harrison is six feet flat on a good day. I like Deebo’s chances.
Sans one lame duck interception by Tom Brady, the Chargers have only managed to pick off Shaun Hill over their last eight games.
They have registered 22 sacks all season. No one with more than 3.5.
The Chargers third down defense: 44.6%, fourth worst in the NFL. The Steelers third down offense: 45.7%, fifth best.
San Diego is a respectable 4-3 on the road this season, 5-3 with a win Sunday. But they haven’t come easy. They haven’t won a game on the road by more than three points.
To top it all off, the Chargers have come to Pittsburgh seven times since the 1995-1996 season. They’ve won just once.
On Sunday, the Chargers mission is simple. Beat the Chiefs and they’re in. And in an ironic twist, the exact opposite scenario of 2013. The Chiefs needing a victory over San Diego to vault Pittsburgh into the playoffs.
Maybe this time, no one will miss a game-winning kick.