Thanks to a thrilling last-second victory by the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers are now in the position in which they only have to win any one of their next three games in order to lock up the AFC North, meaning they can win with a record as low as 12-4, guaranteed. Of course, they can still finish with a 14-2 record.
According to the ESPN playoff simulator, which admittedly is not necessarily always accurate, in fact, the Steelers have reached the point in which their magic number is one, meaning that any combination of Steelers wins, or losses by the Cleveland Browns, would secure them the division title.
The first tiebreaker within a division is always the head-to-head record. Because the Steelers already won the first game, they can’t possibly lose that tiebreaker even if they lose to the Browns in the season finale.
The second tiebreaker is winning percentage within the division. The Browns have already lost three games in the division, including the first game against the Steelers and both games against the Ravens. The Steelers have already won four division games. The result is that the Browns cannot possibly beat the Steelers in a two-time tiebreaking procedure, which means that they have to finish the season with a better record than Pittsburgh.
This is why I called yesterday’s game a virtual must-win for Cleveland, because they are now in a position in which they have to run the table while also having the Steelers lose the rest of their games if they want to win their first AFC North title in franchise history.
If the Steelers win won more game, they are guaranteed to finish the season with no more than four losses. If the Browns lose one more game, they are guaranteed to finish the season with no fewer than five losses.
In other words, while the Steelers have already secured a playoff berth, doing so before kicking off on Sunday night in a loss, they can, for the second week in a row, know whether or not they have secured an important playoff milestone.
The Steelers don’t play until Monday night, while the Browns will play the New York Giants on Sunday, so if Cleveland falls in that game, it would hand Pittsburgh the division title without even having to do anything.
Of course, you don’t want to just back into the playoffs. In fact, the Steelers would seem to have a lot that they need to work on between now and the start of the postseason—which, let’s remind ourselves, they are already guaranteed to participate in, since everyone seems to be on the ledge since Sunday night.