So, assuming the Steelers miss the playoffs, which AFC teams will I be pulling for? Glad you asked. Here's my Loser's Guide to the Postseason. I've even gone so far as to assign scores based on my patented likeability scale (LS), where, given Pittsburgh's out of it, 10 = I wouldn't be upset if (insert team) wins it all; 1 = I hope the entire (insert team) gets an incurable form of herpes.
By the way, something I had to keep in mind when making this list is how the team in question has fared against the Steelers over the years. Obviously, AFC North (and formerly, AFC Central) rivals didn't grade very high, and neither do the Patriots, a team that's made a nasty habit of dashing the hopes and dreams of Pittsburgh fans on a semi-regular basis. On the other hand, the Texans don't evoke the visceral revulsion the Ravens might, and for obvious reasons. (Well, unless you're a Texans fans, I guess.) On to the list (which includes the 10 teams ahead of the Steelers in the playoff race through Week 14):
1st seed, San Diego 11-2 (AFC West champ)
You know, it's hard to root against the Chargers. Marty Schottenheimer is as old school as they come, he gave Bill Cowher his first big break, and other than the fact that, like, half the team has been arrested in the last 12 months, they're a very likable bunch.
That said, I absolutely detest Philip Rivers. Seems like the nicest guy in the world. Doesn't matter. Part of it, I'm sure, is because he's in Ben Roethlisberger's draft class and I didn't like the idea of Rivers in black and gold back in 2004 so to change my thinking now basically amounts to admitting I may have been wrong about him (and we all know I've never been wrong before). More importantly, Rivers went to N.C. State. I hate N.C. State. I grew up in North Carolina a UNC Tar Heels fan. Unless you're my father – a guy with no real sense of what it means to be a fan – who likes Duke, Wake Forest, N.C. State and UNC. (Seriously, you can not just be a "fan of the game"; that's like being a fan of both the Yankees and the Red Sox. Just doesn't work.) Anyway, Rivers is the only thing keeping me from giving the Chargers my full support.
2nd seed, Indianapolis 10-3 (AFC South leader)
At this point, does anybody think this team has a realistic chance of getting out of the first round? If you're Jim Irsay, do you petition the league to hold the Super Bowl in November next year. For the second straight season the Colts started 9-0 and for the second straight season they look like they're not long for the playoffs. Honestly, how the hell did they give up 375 yards rushing last week? At 8.9 yards a pop? Maybe the Steelers can take some of that pride they're playing for and trade it to the Colts for a Day 2 pick or something.
So yeah, there's no way Indy's winning the Super Bowl, but assuming the wheels hadn't totally come off in the past month, I wouldn't be averse to them winning. And yes, at this point, it's a pity vote. I admit it: I'm tired of all the postseason Manning faces, the Mike Vanderhonked field goals, the despondent, "We did not just lose another playoff game we shoulda won, did we?" look on Tony Dungy's face every January. Sure, it was funny the first few times, but now it's just sad. And as long as I'm getting things off my chest, try this one: I like Peyton Manning. There, I said it. He's goofy, no doubt. And he does whine on occasion, but he is infinitely less irritating than Tom Brady. Now, that may have something to do with having three fewer Super Bowl rings, but I'm guessing I'll never find out for sure.
3rd seed, Baltimore 10-3 (AFC North leader)
I can't think of a scenario where I would want Baltimore to win the Super Bowl. My family's held hostage by an insane Ravens fan who will only free them if Baltimore wins it all? Um, honey, it was nice knowing you. Or, a genie guarantees me 10 more Pittsburgh Super Bowls in my lifetime in exchange for becoming a Ravens fan for their one Super Bowl season? To paraphrase Eddie Murphy, I'll take the zero. What if, like in Back to the Future, II, I got my hands on a Sports Almanac from 2050 but was only allowed to wager on a Ravens' Super Bowl-winning season? Austere life, here I come!
Okay, you get the point. Like someone mentioned in another thread, if the Ravens were playing the Patriots, I'd root for injuries.
LS: negative infinity
Which reminds me...
4th seed, New England 9-4 (AFC East leader)
I can't, in good conscience, wish anything but bad things on the Patriots. I guess I should make it clear that no matter how much I despise a player or a team, I never want anyone to get injured (injury joke above aside, of course). Still, I can certainly hope – no, pray – for Brady to throw a bunch of interceptions, get knocked silly in the pocket and, in general, play like crap. You know, like he did in the 2004 Halloween game. And as long as I'm making out my Christmas list, I wouldn't mind somebody slapping that dour look off Bill Belichick's face too. And maybe making him wear one of those sweet Reebok suits for good measure.
Obviously, my feelings toward New England are a direct consequence of them handily disposing of Pittsburgh in two AFC Championship games in four years. Not fun.
5th seed, Cincinnati 8-5
On the one hand, I hope the Bengals lose because they're Pittsburgh's division rival. On the other hand, you have to take stuff like this into consideration:
Could you imagine giving the Bengals two weeks in South Beach? They wouldn't be able to field a team. You might as well pull over the Team Bus and charge the team with DWI…And you know what, for the most part, it's the truth. How awesome is that? Every night, the NFL Network will broadcast live from the Dade County Police Station giving up up-to-the-minute updates on the latest Bengals player to get cuffed and stuffed. Media Day would take place during visiting hours, with interviews conducted by phone with bulletproof glass separating reporter and player. Cincy would be the first team in NFL history to have to forfeit the Super Bowl. This is something I can get behind.
6th seed, Jacksonville 8-5
Okay, now things get interesting. The Steelers and Jaguars used to be division rivals back in the AFC Central days, but I've never had the animosity for Jacksonville that I reserve for, say, the Ravens, Browns, Bengals and Titans. Since Jack Del Rio's arrival, the team has either been rebuilding, or just on the verge of being really, really good. Last year, the Jags finished 12-4 and got absolutely smoked in their only playoff game in New England. Here's Jacksonville's M.O. in a nutshell: A dangerous team during the regular season capable of beating anyone, but usually doesn't show up in the playoffs.
This isn't to say I actively pull against them – it's hard to get worked up about a team when you know they're most likely one-and-down in the postseason – but I'm not to the point where I'd pull for them to win a Super Bowl either. I don't think Del Rio's that great of a coach, and benching Byron Leftwich for David Garrard just seems, well, crazy. (I know, I know, Leftwich is "hurt" but I'm not completely buying that.) Couple that with Del Rio's predilection for wearing suits made by a shoe company, and I just can't, in good faith, give them my full support.
7th seed, N.Y. Jets 7-6
How can you not like the Jets? These guys were routinely picked to finish near the bottom of the league and all they've done is start the season 7-6 (and this includes a ridiculous loss to the Bills last week). The Eric Mangini hiring is looking like the front office move of the off-season and maybe there is something to this whole Bill Belichick coaching tree phenomenon. Certainly, Bill Cowher can make the same case (and probably a stronger one), but like I wrote last week: "You know, that Belichick coaching tree is great and all, but only if the branches aren't beating the crap out of the trunk."
So, in addition to the student becoming the teacher, having a swell nickname like Mangenius, and turning a hapless bunch of guys into a potential wild-card team, Mangini also has some of the best man boobs in the league. You've got to be pulling for him.
8th seed, Kansas City 7-6 Herm Edwards seems nice enough, but I'm convinced he might be one of the worst in-game managers in the league. Here's a guy who never met a clock-management blunder he didn't fully embrace. Last week, with his team in the wild-card mix, the Chiefs, for the first time in a long time, lost a home game in December. Against the Ravens, no less.
I guess I wouldn't mind if the Chiefs won it all, but I feel like would send the absolute wrong message. Namely, that talent can overcome crappy decision making from the guys wearing the headsets.
Frankly, I don't have any problems with Kansas City, but this is more a protest vote against atrocious coaching.
9th seed, Denver 7-6
For as much gruff as I gave Cowher earlier this year for some questionable decisions (hello Ricardo Colclough!), he's not even in the conversation now that Mike Shanahan has made quite possibly the worst in-season personnel decision in the history of professional sports. Look, I can understand benching a veteran quarterback to give the new guy a look. It happens all the time. However, it never happens when a team is battling for a playoff spot, 12 weeks into the season.
And if the argument is Shanahan doesn't just want to get to the playoffs, he wants to win Super Bowls, I might remind him that Plummer got all the way to the AFCC last season.
Now, I'm thinking the NFL should give the Shanahan Award to the coach who single-handedly torpedoes his teams' chances of making the postseason. And the first annual Shanahan Award to ... Mike Shanahan. No surprises there.
This team gets exactly what it deserves.
10 Buffalo 6-7
Geez. You know it's been a crazy season when the Buffalo freakin' Bills are ahead of the Steelers in the playoff race (thanks New York Jets). That said, I think it would be hilarious to see the Bills win it all. I know so little about this team because they've been so bad for so long. Quarterback J.P. Losman is finally putting it together, Lee Evans and Willis McGahee are really good young players, both rookie safeties Ko Simpson and Donte Whitner have started most of the season and head coach Dick Jauron seems like a really super neat guy. But after that, I got nothing.
And truthfully, I can't get too worked up about it. It's like the Marlins winning the World Series, or Villanova winning the NCAA National Championship. Yeah, by definition, they'd be the champs, but it's one of those deals where fans start looking forward to next year about 10 minutes after the Super Bowl ends. Whatever. I'm pretty sure I don't have to worry about buffalo getting on a hot streak, but hey, if they do, they've insouciant support.
But who knows, maybe the Steelers will catch a few breaks (okay, catch every break), sneak into the playoffs and run the table … again. Like I said, this little exercise is just in case things don't work out. We'll see.