The Steelers got a much-needed victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday night to bring their record to 2-4 heading into the bye week. At this point, the Steelers sit two games behind the Baltimore Ravens and tied with the Cleveland Browns in the AFC North standings. Thinking about the playoffs may be as far-fetched as the infamous Jim Mora quote, but as we head into the bye week, it is worth considering the Steelers chances.
How We Got Here
One of the truisms of the NFL is that the complexion of the league changes every 3-4 weeks. This has proven true for the Steelers, who got off to an 0-3 start but bounced back over the last three weeks to go 2-1 with their only loss coming in overtime. In retrospect, the Steelers first three losses don’t look so bad as the Patriots, Seahawks, and 49ers are a combined 16-1. The fourth loss came against a Ravens team that sits at 4-2. The Steelers two victories came against Cincinnati and Los Angeles, who both have losing records.
For the Steelers AFC North rivals, their first six games have been slightly easier. Baltimore has victories over Miami, Arizona, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. All four of those teams have losing records. Baltimore also lost to the 2-4 Browns. In their only game against a team with a winning record, the Ravens lost to the Chiefs. Like the Steelers, the Browns have losses to Seattle and San Francisco. Cleveland has also dropped games to the Rams (3-3) and Titans (2-4). The Browns victories came over Baltimore and the hapless Jets who were starting Luke Faulk at quarterback. Cleveland is the only AFC North team with a win over a team with a winning record (Baltimore).
Looking ahead, only three of the Steelers’ ten remaining opponents currently have winning records. These three are Buffalo (4-1), Indianapolis (3-2), and Baltimore (4-2). The Steelers also have to play the Rams, who are 3-3 after starting 3-0 then losing 3 straight games. The other six opponents on the schedule all currently have losing records, including the Dolphins, Bengals, and Jets who are a combined 1-15 this season. Beyond those three, the Steelers face the Browns (2-4) twice and the Cardinals (2-3-1).
While the Steelers play 6 of their remaining 10 games against teams with losing records, the same can not be said for Baltimore and Cleveland. Baltimore plays just 4 more games against teams with losing records, including games against the Browns and Steelers in Weeks 16 and 17. Just 1 of Baltimore’s next 7 opponents has a losing record (Cincinnati) while another (the Rams) is currently .500. For Cleveland, their schedule does get a bit easier after a showdown with New England. Seven of Cleveland’s last nine games are against teams with losing records, including two against Pittsburgh.
The NFL’s schedule matrix gives divisional teams the same slate of opponents with the exception of two games. Teams play their divisional opponents twice along with all four teams from one division in both their conference and the other conference. The only two different games are against teams from the other two divisions within the conference that finish in the same standings position. This year, the AFC North teams face the entire AFC East and NFC West. The “positional” opponents come from the AFC South and AFC West. Since Baltimore won the division last year, they face defending division champions Houston and Kansas City. Pittsburgh as the second place team faces Indianapolis and Los Angeles. Cleveland plays Tennessee and Denver. Looking at common opponents side-by-side, the Steelers are actually slightly ahead of the curve thanks to their win over the Chargers.
It has been said that the AFC North is a race to 9 wins. If Baltimore emulates the results of the Steelers and Browns, this may very well be true. Baltimore has yet to face the Patriots, 49ers, Seahawks, and Rams – all of whom have handed out losses to the Steelers and Browns. On the flip side, the Steelers have yet to face the Dolphins, Jets, or Cardinals. Obviously, the Steelers two head-to-head meetings with the Browns in Weeks 11 and 13 will be massive in the AFC North race. Given that Baltimore has a loss to Cleveland, if the Steelers can sweep the Browns they could potentially be in position to face the Ravens with the division title on the line in Week 17.
Even if the Steelers split with the Browns, it is still possible that they win their other games against sub-.500 teams (the Cardinals, Bengals, Jets, Dolphins and one with the Browns). Just winning these games alone would get the Steelers to 7 wins by Week 17. Is it possible for the 4-2 Ravens to also be at 7 or 8 wins entering Week 17? Given that 6 of Baltimore’s next 7 opponents have at least a .500 record, this is certainly possible.
At the end of the day, considering the rash of injuries the Steelers have suffered, making the playoffs is still an extreme long shot. However, given the upcoming schedules of both the Steelers, Ravens, and Browns, it is entirely possible that the AFC North will be won by an 8- or 9-win team. Don’t sleep on the Browns who have 5 of their last 6 opponents currently below-.500. That said, if the Ravens and Browns have comparable results against the teams that have beaten the Steelers, and the Steelers can follow suit and win games against the teams their divisional rivals have beaten, they can climb back into the AFC North race. Even at just 2-4, the Steelers are not entirely out of the wild card picture either, as the only teams above them are Buffalo (4-1), Oakland (3-2) and Indianapolis (3-2), two of which they will play over the final ten games.