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How the Steelers Can Make the Playoffs

By Ed Bouchette
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 5 years ago

Good morning,

Overcoming the Cincinnati Bengals to win the AFC North Division title is a long-shot for the Steelers, but there remains a sliver of hope, thanks to the NFL’s tiebreaking system.

Cincinnati’s second straight defeat raised hopes by Steelers fans that their team might overtake the Bengals and win their second straight division crown. At 6-4, the Steelers are two games behind the first-place Bengals, who are 8-2 and they can gain one of those by winning in Cincinnati Dec. 13. If the Bengals lost another and the Steelers won out, they would be tied.

A tie would not do it for the Steelers unless the Bengals also lost to either Cleveland or Baltimore because the first tiebreaker is record within the division. Cincinnati is 3-0 in the division and the Steelers 1-2. The Bengals would have to finish with two division losses and be tied with the Steelers for it to go to the next tiebreaker.

And if it does, that’s where the Steelers have a chance. The next tiebreaker is not, as many believe, the two teams’ records in the AFC. If it were, the Bengals again would have a big edge because they are 7-1 and the Steelers are 3-4. So the Bengals would have to lose three games for the Steelers to even tie in that category.

However, the NFL procedure for breaking ties within the division starts with head-to-head, then goes to best record within the division. The third tiebreaker is best record in common games for the two teams. There, the Bengals still lead with a 5-1 record to the Steelers’ 4-2. However, there is plenty of football to be played in that category as well. Cincinnati has a game Sunday against St. Louis and another at San Francisco Dec. 20. The Steelers beat both teams. Both the Steelers and Bengals then have games left against Cleveland, Denver and Baltimore.

It remains a long shot for the Steelers to overcome the Bengals and win the AFC North. They would have put themselves in great position had they been able to pull out that game against Cincinnati Nov. 1 at Heinz Field; then, they would be tied at 7-3 and perhaps could have determined the division winner at Cincinnati Dec. 13.

But the Bengals prevailed in that one 16-10.

The most logical path to the playoffs for the Steelers remains the wildcard route, and while they are clearly No. 1 with the best record among those not leading the division, four AFC teams are 5-5. They are Buffalo (after losing last night to New England 20-13), the New York Jets, Houston and Kansas City.

There, the tiebreakers are not kind to the Steelers. First is head to head, so Kansas City would beat them out if those two tie. They will have played no other 5-5 AFC teams so the next tiebreaker would be record within the conference, as it would be to break tied with three or more teams. This is where it gets confusing because the next step to break a tie within the division – the Steelers and Bengals, for example – are those common games. But once you get into breaking ties for the wildcard berth outside the division, it is reversed – record within the AFC first and then common games.

Again, the Steelers 3-4 conference record might hurt them. Kansas City has only two losses and Houston three. Buffalo is 5-4 in the AFC and the Jets 4-4.

As some Steelers players said on Monday, they now are in control of whether they make the playoffs or not. The one thing we do know is that if they sweep their final six games, they are in. If they go 5-1, it’s unlikely two other 5-5 teams will sweep their final six, so that should do it also. Go 4-2 and a 10-6 record also should make it.

According to FiveThirtyEight, the Steelers are the ninth strongest team in the NFL and fifth in the AFC. They have a 62 percent chance of making the playoffs, an 11 percent chance of winning the division, a 4 percent chance of earning a first-round bye and a 2 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl.

The New York Times has a playoff simulator and there, the Times gives the Steelers a 56 percent chance to make the playoffs based on 19,400 simulations.

So there you have it. The Steelers have a better chance of making the playoffs than not making them. Their chance of winning the division is a long-shot but not out of the question.

Now all they have to do is play.