The Steelers' final 4 games of the season (the stretch run) are Houston, Carolina, at Tampa, and Baltimore. Except for Tampa, this schedule can be considered anything but grueling, especially when compared to what the other teams in the divisional races are facing.
For example below are the final schedules of what can be considered the prime candidates to deny the Steelers a high seed or playoff birth.
- Denver: at NY Jets, Kansas City, at Oakland, Arizona
- Oakland: at San Diego, at Miami, Denver, Kansas City
- San Diego: Oakland, at Buffalo, at Kansas City, Seattle
- Miami: Chicago, Oakland, at Minnesota, at New England
- New England: Buffalo, at Tennessee, NY Jets, Miami
- Tennessee: Indianapolis, New England, at Jacksonville, at Houston
- Indianapolis: at Tennessee, at Cleveland, NY Giants, Jacksonville
After seeing those schedules, the Steelers' final 4 games look like trips to Dave and Busters. It can be safely assumed that the Steelers need only win out to gain the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Even if they go 3 - 1, the possibility of San Diego and Oakland going 2 - 2 are likely. That would put only the Colts obstructing the No. 1 seed, and if history is any indicator, I'd rather have the No. 2 seed any day.
But, first things first, the Houston Texans stand in the way.
Pittsburgh - NFL Rank 16th (Rush 2nd, Pass 26th). The Steelers allowed only 248 yards of total offense last week. As Dale Lolley said, for the first time this year Kendrell Bell was a presence on defense. They'll need more of that for the playoffs. Now would be a good time get the momentum started.
Houston - NFL Rank 10th (Rush 22nd, Pass 5th). The defense is the strength of this team, as was expected after the expansion draft. They have players like Aaron Glenn, Marcus Coleman, Gary Walker, Seth Payne, and Jamie Sharper. Not household names but certainly solid football players. And the head coach is very familiar to any Pittsburgh fan: Dom Capers.
Advantage: Don't laugh, but I've got to give Houston a slight edge. The Steelers may have the most talent, but the Texan defense is used to playing long minutes and keeping their team in games.
Pittsburgh - NFL Rank 4th (Rush 10th, Pass 6th). The Steelers lose Mark Bruener for the season. Only time will tell if this loss hurts the Steelers down the stretch. I know what some folks would say, but as I said, time will tell.
Houston - NFL Rank 32nd (Rush 28th, Pass 32nd). They have some playmakers and the ability to surprise teams with their offense. Corey Bradford, although inconsistent, gives the Texans speed and big play ability in the receiving corps. But don't let that get anyone nervous, the most potent thing on this offense is Kris Brown. Yes, THAT Kris Brown.
Advantage: The Steelers have a decided edge.
Tommy Maddox returns this week. I know some are wondering if it's wise to risk him against an expansion team. At some point however, he and the team need to find out how he'll react post-injury. What better way than to let him pick apart an expansion team?
David Carr has been sacked 64 times and has not missed a snap. The NFL record is 81. He'll need some help or he'll get a little closer to the record.
Advantage: I'm giving Maddox the edge. He may start out slow, but he'll regain his new/old form within a quarter.
Outlook: I like the Steelers by 13 as they begin to gain momentum.
--The Steel Apple