Given that the NFL is aligned between two conferences, you only have to emerge through a 16-team gauntlet in order to earn the right to play in the Super Bowl, where you would then face the victor from the opposite conference. The Pittsburgh Steelers, unfortunately, have not reached this stage in a decade, last achieving it in 2010.
According to Gregg Rosenthal, however, they have about as good a chance as any other team in the AFC that is not the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens, both of whom were the topo two seeds in the conference last year, with the former going on to win the Super Bowl.
In breaking down the conference, Rosenthal placed those two teams alone in the top bracket, labeled ‘playoffs or bust’, meaning that anything short of a playoff push would be a dismal failure for where those respective organizations are in their roster development.
The second category encompasses nearly half of the conference, the group labeled ‘contenders’ consisting of seven teams, and while these teams are not ranked, Rosenthal would seem to rank the Steelers as the most prominent of the group, listing them first and commenting on them first—in conjunction with the Cleveland Browns, even if the Browns are listed fifth in the group.
The Steelers and Browns are stuck in the conference’s most competitive division, but both rosters have the star power and depth to make a playoff run. Pittsburgh is the safer pick, with Mike Tomlin’s defense coming off its best season since Troy Polamalu was roaming the field early last decade. If Ben Roethlisberger is the Steelers’ biggest question mark, they have a high ceiling. Cleveland has addressed some needs in free agency and should get a boost from a coaching change. A post-hype improvement could happen after a lost season overstuffed with bad fortune.
Being in the same division as the Ravens is not ideal. The Steelers finished 8-8 last year, narrowly missing the playoffs, after losing to Baltimore twice during the year. The Ravens also kept them out of the postseason with a Week 17 victory the year before. Those scenarios would be different under this year’s rules with a third wildcard team, though.
Obviously, the Steelers will be looking to win the AFC North, though, and to beat the Ravens. Whether or not they will have the firepower to do so will depend greatly upon the health and abilities of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as he works his way back from elbow surgery.