The Steelers (8-6) were hoping to get closer to locking down an AFC wild-card spot Sunday night. Instead, the Bills (10-4) clinched a playoff berth by coming into Pittsburgh and beating them 17-10 in the penultimate game of NFL Week 15.
The Ravens (12-2) have already put the AFC North out of reach, clinching the division by winning to open Week 15. The Patriots (11-3) and the West champion Chiefs (10-4) are two more guaranteed AFC playoff teams. For now, the South-leading Texans (9-5) would also be in.
The Steelers are thus staring at the No. 6 seed or staying at home for a second consecutive postseason after an 0-3 start to 2019. Here are the different ways they can maintain their precarious playoff position over the final two weeks of the regular season:
The Steelers win out
The Steelers have a game against Le’Veon Bell and the Jets (5-9) on the road in Week 16. They’ll also leave Pittsburgh to play the Ravens in Week 17.
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Should the Steelers go 2-0, they would be in the playoffs ahead of the Titans, also 8-6 after Week 15. The Steelers will finish with a 8-4 conference record in that case. The best the Titans can do is 7-5. A win in Week 16 would also finally knock out the Browns and the Raiders, both 6-8.
The Jets are a team the Steelers should beat, and the Steelers might get a break with the Ravens resting key players if Baltimore locks up the AFC’s top seed with a win over the Browns in Week 16.
The Steelers go 1-1 and the Titans go 1-1, losing to the Texans
The Steelers and Titans would then be tied at 9-7. In this scenario, the Steelers have a 7-5 conference record and the Titans are 6-6, and the Steelers still make the playoffs.
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But say the Steelers go 1-1 and the Titans’ 1-1 comes from losing to the Saints but beating the Texans. Then, both the Steelers and Titans are 7-5 in AFC play. The next tiebreaker is common games. That doesn’t help, because the teams are each 3-2 there. Then it would come down to strength of victory, where the Titans have the edge, helped by beating the Chiefs and the Saints while two of the Steelers’ wins came over the Bengals.
The Steelers go 1-1 and the Titans go 0-2
The Steelers could split with the Jets and Ravens and still get in this way, finishing 9-7 while the Titans go 8-8. The Titans losing out is a strong possibility, given that the Saints present a very tough home game before the road rematch with the Texans.
The Steelers, however, are in trouble if they go 0-2 while the Titans do the same. That means the conference records are identical and the deciding factor goes back to strength of victory, which currently also tilts in the Titans’ favor.
The bottom line is, anything less than a Steelers two-game winning streak to end the season leaves their playoff chances dicey and out of their control.