For the Pittsburgh Steelers from here on out, it’s really quite simple: win and you’re in. If the Steelers win their last four games, there’s nothing the other three teams in the AFC North can do to finish higher than Pittsburgh.
Of course, that’s a completely different discussion from the one that involves the logistics and probability of a 7-5 team prone to losing to bad teams going on a four-game winning streak to close out the season. It’s simply not likely to happen.
But for sanity’s sake, the Steelers must simplify their approach. For the next for weeks, each game is a one-game season. And the next one against the Cincinnati Bengals on the road is especially important. It figures to be their biggest hurdle left on their schedule and would bring them to within half a game of the division lead by dropping the Bengals to 8-4-1.
The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens cannot win the division if the Steelers don’t lose. In fact, the Browns and Ravens cannot even both finish 11-5, since they close out the season facing each other. The Browns also have one game left against the Bengals. If either the Browns or Ravens finish 11-5 with the Steelers, they would either the division (Ravens) or conference (Browns) tiebreaker, and would have to hope to finish as a wildcard.
Of course, it gets a lot more complicated if the Steelers drop a game, but they can still win the division. As long as the Browns beat the Ravens in the season finale, if the three teams all finish 10-6, the Steelers would win the tiebreakers, assuming their loss comes from outside the division.
In other words, these two games against the Bengals are really, really important. Very nearly bordering on “kiss any playoff hopes goodbye” if they lose either one, barring unpredictable collapses by either the Browns or Ravens.
Not that either have the easiest of schedules. As mentioned, they play each other again, while the Browns must still face the Bengals and Colts, in addition to the Panthers. The Ravens still have the Dolphins, Texans, and Jaguars. A loss by either the Dolphins or Ravens would benefit the Steelers—even a Texans loss would count if we’re assuming Pittsburgh finishes 10-6 fighting for a wildcard spot.
As for the Bengals, in addition to facing the Steelers twice and the Browns once, they also must face the Broncos. That’s four games against teams that are, as of now, two games or more above .500. That’s no easy stretch by any means.
As strong as the AFC North might be, it’s a very realistic scenario that the division winner finishes the season with a record of 10-6, with half of those losses coming from within the division.
That could be the Steelers, but they would need some help in order for that to happen. But until they lose a game, let’s keep it simple, week to week: win and you’re in.