It is virtually possible for a mid-season game to be a literal ‘must-win’, but if the Pittsburgh Steelers have any aspirations of defending their division title this year, today’s game against the 6-0 Cincinnati Bengals is about as close as it can get.
The Steelers are returning to Heinz Field after dropping their third game of the season to go 4-3 in their first seven games, finishing a four-game span without Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback by winning two and dropping two.
In other words, Pittsburgh is already three games behind the Bengals for the AFC North crown in the loss column. A loss today would put them four games behind.
What that means is that, at a bare minimum, the Steelers would need the Bengals to lose four out of their last nine games, while Pittsburgh would have to go undefeated. Every loss the Steelers suffer from this point forward would add another game that they would need the Bengals to lose.
Given that Cincinnati has been unable to lose, even in the face of substantial or back-and-forth fourth-quarter deficits against the Seahawks and Ravens, respectively, it doesn’t seem a safe proposition to count on the Bengals to put too many notches in the loss column of their own accord. The Steelers will have to do their part.
To their advantage is the fact that they still have two games to play against the Bengals, which means that, while they don’t entirely control their destiny, there is a lot they can do about it.
Should the Steelers sweep them, they would need only for Cincinnati to drop one additional game in order for the teams to finish with the same record—and Pittsburgh would own the head-to-head tie-breaker.
Should the Steelers lose this game, they will not only lose the head-to-head tiebreaker, but with an 0-2 division record, they would be off to a terrible start in the second tie breaker as well, which goes down to division record. It also doesn’t help that they have a 1-3 record within the AFC.
With this in perspective, for all intents and purposes, today’s game is indeed effective a must-win game in order to keep the hopes of a division title, and at least one home playoff game, alive, and even then there is still a long road ahead.
With Roethlisberger back, of course, the Steelers will always have a chance to win every time they step on the field. While Andy Dalton has made strides this season, he is certainly not Roethlisberger’s equal in terms of pure skills and command at the quarterback position.
Of course, failing to win the division is not the end of the world, nor is it the end of the Steelers’ playoff hopes, as the season’s story continues to unfold. With the Chargers and Dolphins potentially in a tailspin, the Bills struggling, and the Jets in the mix to cannibalize the Bills, the Steelers should still be well-poised to make it back to the post-season again, even if the Bengals are making it awfully tough to do so the old-fashioned way by winning the division.