How the Pittsburgh Steelers can clinch a playoff spot with a loss

The Pittsburgh Steelers enter Week 18 as the No. 9 seed, yet they could end up moving to the No. 7 seed and become a playoff team – with a loss.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers / Joe Sargent/GettyImages

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Week 18 clash with the AFC North champion Baltimore Ravens this Saturday afternoon has largely been billed as a must-win for Mike Tomlin’s team. 

While Tomlin has already clinched his 17th straight non-losing season, he is still looking to clinch what would be the team’s first playoff berth since 2021.

The Steelers are set to enter the weekend as the No. 9 seed in the AFC. They are tied with the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans at 9-7, but they lost to both AFC South teams head-to-head. The Colts currently occupy the seventh and final AFC playoff spot due to their head-to-head win over the Texans.

But there is a way for the Steelers to move up two spots – and thus get into the NFL playoffs – even with a loss this weekend.

ESPN FPI gives the Steelers only a 17.52% chance to beat the Ravens, yet even with a loss, they’d still have a 13.81% chance to back themselves into the No. 7 seed.

What kind of help would they need?

Believe it or not, it wouldn’t take all that much. First and foremost, they would need the Jacksonville Jaguars to lose to the Tennessee Titans. The Titans have beaten the Jaguars in eight of the Jags’ last nine trips to Nashville, so perhaps the Jaguars’ 69.61% chance to pull off the victory is a bit exaggerated.

They would also simply need the game between the Colts and Texans not to end in a tie. This would ensure that a 9-8 Jaguars team (as opposed to a 10-7 Colts or Texans team) finishes in second place in the AFC South, since they own the tiebreaker over both the Colts (head-to-head sweep) and the Texans (superior divisional record, in the event Houston goes 9-8).

The Jaguars did beat the Steelers head-to-head, so logic would suggest that Jacksonville ends up getting the No. 7 seed over Pittsburgh. That would indeed be true, unless you throw the Denver Broncos into the mix.

The Broncos have already been eliminated from playoff contention, but if they beat the Las Vegas Raiders to insert themselves into this tie among 9-8 teams, the Jags’ head-to-head victory over the Steelers would no longer be the decisive tiebreaker.

Denver, Jacksonville, and Pittsburgh would all own 6-6 records within the AFC, so the decisive factor would be strength of victory. That tiebreaker would go to Pittsburgh.

Moving up two spots into a playoff spot – by losing? You literally cannot find a better way to sum up the Steelers’ 2023 season.

As for why the loser of the Colts and Texans game would not be factored into this tiebreaker, despite being 9-8 and owning a win over the Steelers, the reason is simple: a third place team in a division cannot get into the playoffs over – nor be seeded higher than – a second place team in the same division, and the Jaguars would be in second. 

Next. NFL Draft Order if season ended today: Steelers win hardly hurts their draft stock. NFL Draft Order if season ended today: Steelers win hardly hurts their draft stock. dark

Divisional tiebreakers trump all when it comes to multi-team Wild Card logjams. It is for this very reason that the Cincinnati Bengals aren’t even in the discussion, even if they beat the Cleveland Browns to get to 9-8. They were swept by the Steelers and have no way of passing them in the AFC North, thus knocking them out of contention.