The Pittsburgh Steelers magic number is 3. If the Steelers win three more games this season, they win the North. If both the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns lose 3 of their next four games, the Steelers also win the North. The best scenario this coming Sunday would include a Steelers victory coupled with losses by both the Browns and Ravens. At this point, the magic number is dramatically reduced to 1 with 3 games left.
The point of all this noodling is to point out that the Steelers will be playing football in January. The question is, against whom?
Heading into Week 14, the AFC playoff picture couldn't be cloudier. 13 teams still have realistic shots at the six playoff spots. With the Steelers likely grabbing one of them, that leaves only five.
Here is how the playoff match ups would shake out if the season ended today:
Indianapolis (8-4) gets a first-round bye as the number 1 seed.
San Diego (8-4) also gets a first-round bye as the number 2 seed.
Tennessee (7-5) @ Pittsburgh (7-4-1) matches up the number 6 seed with the number 3 seed.
The lowest remaining seed travels to Indianapolis, which could be Tennessee, Oakland or Miami. The other team gets to travel to San Diego, twice if they are lucky.
But the season does not end today. There are four games to go and all the teams that would be in the playoffs now could be gone tomorrow. In fact, you can be sure, very sure, that this current picture will be different next Tuesday.
You must keep two things in mind when trying to figure out where and against whom the Steelers will be playing come January. First, you need to notice which playoff hopefuls play other hopefuls over the course of the next four weeks. Second, the Steelers have that annoying tie, which throws out all tiebreaker scenarios. The Steelers Conference record or head-to-head match ups mean nothing.
Take the Oakland Raiders, for example. The Raiders play all AFC playoff hopefuls over their last four games. The big game next week is Oakland traveling to San Diego to play the Chargers. The winner of this game claims first place in the AFC West. The loser starts the tiebreaker process to see if they are wild card.
In fact, four of these top six AFC playoff seeds play each other this Sunday. The Tennessee Titans entertain the Indianapolis Colts. The Titans could reclaim first place in the AFC South with a victory. But we are interested in the Steelers. If the Steelers win, they could move up to the second seeded position simply if the Titans win.
Right now, the only teams on the Steelers radar screen are the ones with 5 losses or less: Indianapolis, San Diego, Miami, Oakland, Tennessee, New England, and Denver. As long as the Steelers keep winning, this remains the case. One of these teams will play each other six times over the next four weeks (two of these game occur next week).
Why is this important?
Either San Diego or Oakland will lose one more game. Either Indianapolis or Tennessee will lose one more game. Either Miami or Oakland will lose one more game. Either Miami or New England will lose one more game. Either Oakland or Denver will lose one more game. Either Tennessee or New England will lose one more game.
No matter what happens, the Steelers will get some playoff help in at least six games. Over the next four weeks, the top teams in the AFC will be knocking each other off. All the top teams except the Steelers.
If you want to know who to root for, root for the team with the current lowest seed (Tennessee and Oakland this Sunday). If this did happen, this is how the seedings would look after the finish of the regular season (assuming these teams beat all the other non-contending teams and that the Steelers win every game but the one against Tampa Bay):
Denver (11-5): Winners of the West and top seed in the AFC.
New England (11-5): Winners of the East and second seed.
Indianapolis (11-5): Winners of the South and third seed.
Pittsburgh (10-5-1): Winners of the North and fourth seed.
San Diego (11-5): Wild card and fifth seed.
Oakland (10-6): Wild card and sixth seed.
In this case, Oakland would travel to Indianapolis and San Diego would travel to Pittsburgh in the first round. After that, Pittsburgh would have to win on the road either in Foxboro or Denver.
Pittsburgh will likely end up the third or fourth seed, unless they win out. The Steelers match up well with all the probable playoff teams except the Patriots and the Raiders. So, losses by these two teams over the next four weeks might be valued. Runs by the Titans and the Dolphins would be most welcome. However, I'd say the above playoff scenario is the most likely case., with the two wild cards coming from the West.
Prepare yourself for a showdown between Marty and Marty Jr. Something has to give this January.