Steelers at Bengals: AFC Playoff Picture Prior to Week 14


In a jam-packed AFC Playoff crowd, the Steelers will need more than just a victory in Cincinnati this Sunday to secure their postseason spot.

Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium offers the Steelers two distinct paths. With a loss, Pittsburgh will fall to 7-6 and be treading water as a Wild Card hopeful; the Bengals, in turn, would clinch both a season-sweep of the Steelers and the title of AFC North champion. With a win, the Steelers will jump to 8-5 and nestle into the upper tier of playoff threats.

They’re hardly alone, however.

The rat race for the AFC’s two Wild Card slots is congested with a handful of capable teams. The Chiefs and Jets, like the Steelers, are currently 7-5. Right behind them are the Bills and Texans, each at 6-6. The Colts are also 6-6, but thanks to an early victory over Houston, they hold the #1 spot in the dumpster fire known as the AFC South for the time being. 

The elites of the AFC – the Broncos, Patriots, and yes, Bengals – all share a 10-2 record. All sorts of scenarios are possible, but for argument’s sake, let’s assume these teams secure the top three seeds in the playoffs. The AFC’s #4 seed will be either the Colts or Texans, and next week’s showdown between the two is likely going to determine who secures it.

New York and Kansas City have ideal matchups in week 14. The Jets face the Titans and the Chiefs face the Chargers this weekend, with both of these games at home. The combined record of their opponents is 6-18.

Barring upsets from two of the NFL’s saddest teams, the Jets and Chiefs will reach 8-5 on Sunday. It’s essential that the Steelers do the same.

While the Jets certainly represent a challenge, especially with New England’s recent shortcomings, Kansas City is undoubtedly the thorn in Pittsburgh’s side here. A week seven win at Arrowhead Stadium earned the Chiefs a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Steelers, the most powerful tool when choosing between two fringe contenders. What’s worse: the Chiefs have a maddeningly-light schedule down the stretch.

Following Sunday’s tilt with the Chargers, Kansas City’s final three games are against the Ravens, Browns and Raiders. Baltimore’s wasteland of injuries has only gotten worse thanks to Matt Schaub‘s pick-six festival. Cleveland is again jockeying for the #1 draft pick, just as the football gods designed. Oakland has collapsed, dropping four of their last five. 

11-5 is very, very achievable for the Chiefs. If they do win out, KC will almost certainly lock up the #5 seed.

The quiet X-factor in this entire equation is the Broncos. Denver faces the Steelers and Bengals in weeks 15 and 16, respectively. Back-to-back victories against AFC juggernauts would be a massive statement for Pittsburgh, cementing their status as true Super Bowl material. The craziest part? These are going to be necessary wins if the playoffs are to be reached.

All of these tiebreakers and scenarios are mind-numbing, and it’s important to remember that these are hypothetical (but statistically likely) outcomes. One thing that stats can’t measure, though, is heart. These final few weeks are going to reveal a lot about the 2015 Steelers, whether the end result is a playoff berth or not.

The easiest formula to ensure the Steelers do make it to January? Just keep winning.