Even though the Pittsburgh Steelers now find themselves in a position in which they can secure a playoff spot simply by winning their next game on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, they can’t afford to take their foot off the gas pedal should that happen.
That’s because in order to win the AFC North, they will, in all likelihood, have to finish the year at 11-5. In fact, if they were to win only one of their final two games, it would be much more beneficial for them to emerge victorious in the season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals.
With a half-game lead in the division, it’s obviously imperative that the Steelers win one more game left this season than the Bengals do, but of equal importance is the remaining schedule faced by the other AFC North contender, the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens already came down the stretch with likely the simplest remaining schedule, but that schedule has only gotten softer in light of recent events. Though they struggled through much of a victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, they should certainly be favored to win their last two games.
First up is the Houston Texans, who no longer have a quarterback after Ryan Fitzpatrick suffered a broken leg. And Fitzpatrick was already benched earlier in the season in favor of Ryan Mallett, whose season was also ended due to injury.
Now, the Texans are deciding on who their starter will be for the Ravens game, and their options are not very compelling. It’s come down to either Thad Lewis or Case Keenum, the latter of whom was just signed away from another team’s practice squad. This is in light of learning that rookie Tom Savage will also miss the game with a knee injury.
It’s hard to imagine the Texans putting up much of a fight with these poor options at quarterback, unless Arian Foster can carry the team on his shoulders to victory.
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns once looked like a legitimate contender for the AFC North crown, but they’ve since fallen apart in light of the degradation of Brian Hoyer at quarterback and his subsequent benching.
Johnny Manziel made his first start on Sunday in a debut that’s hard to fathom going much worse, and quite frankly it’s unlikely that he turns it around by the season finale, in which the Browns will likely have nothing to play for, as per norm.
On the other hand, the Bengals have to get through the Denver Broncos this Sunday, in a game they can very much lose. If they fall to the Broncos and lose to the Steelers in the season finale, then Pittsburgh would still finish with a better record.
It’s just the Ravens now who are preventing this home stretch from being easy for Pittsburgh and seemingly assuring that they can’t lose if they want to win the division. To do so, they will have to end the year with four straight wins, which they haven’t done since midway through the 2012 season.