What a difference a week makes.
Entering Sunday’s game against the lowly Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers had won five out of their last six games and looked poised to make a deep run in the playoffs.
The offence, in particular, was rolling. Ben Roethlisberger had somehow remained healthy, despite missing four starts and having been carted off in two other games with injuries. The receiving corps of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton had given the Denver secondary fits in Week 15. They looked as scary as any receiving trio in football. Even De’Angelo Williams, filling in for the injured Le’Veon Bell, had helped establish a solid run game.
In short, the Steelers looked like the team nobody wanted to face in the AFC come the playoffs.
But then on Sunday the Steelers fell to the 4-10 Ravens, and now the team that looked like the biggest threat to the Patriots in the AFC might not make the playoffs at all.
The loss marked the second time this season that Baltimore got the better of Pittsburgh, and the the 20-17 loss pushed the Steelers out of the wild card picture. With one week remaining, the Steelers now need serious help in order to capture the sixth and final playoff spot.
“We shot ourselves in the foot today,” Roethlisberger said after the loss. “The only thing we can do now is play, win, watch and hope.”
Prior to Week 16, FiveThirtyEight gave the Steelers a 90% chance to make the playoffs. That’s since dropped to 45%.
For the Steelers to capture the final wild card spot, they will need to beat the Browns in Cleveland and hope one of the following scenarios plays out:
A) The Bills beat the Jets in Buffalo in Week 17.
Currently the Jets own the sixth AFC playoff spot after beating the Patriots in overtime. (The Chiefs clinched a playoff berth on Sunday.) Remember, the 7-8 Bills already beat the Jets once this season, and nothing would make Rex Ryan happier than knocking his old team out of the playoffs in the last game of the season. As of Monday, FiveThirtyEight favours Buffalo in the game, giving them a 54% chance to win. But don’t sleep on the Jets, who have won five straight and know what’s riding on this game. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2010. Suffice it to say, the Steelers will be rooting hard for Buffalo on Sunday.
B) The Broncos lose out.
If Denver falls to Cincinnati on Monday night, and then to the 4-11 Chargers in Week 17, the Chiefs would move up from the fifth-seed and win the AFC West. This would bump the Broncos all the way out of the playoffs because they would have the same record as the Steelers (10-6, assuming the Steelers win), and the Steelers would own the head-to-head from their Week 15 victory over the Broncos. But the Broncos final two games are at home, and the Chargers are legitimately atrocious, so this scenario seems less likely.
Of course, neither scenario is completely unfathomable; crazier things have happened. But the Steelers should be coasting by now, and instead the playoff hopes for one the scariest offenses in football is in the hands of Tyrod Taylor. That’s not ideal.
And don’t forget that both of these scenarios rely on the Steelers beating the Browns. The way Pittsburgh’s season has gone, that’s no sure thing, either.
“We’re capable of beating anyone,'” head coach Mike Tomlin said, “but we’re also capable of losing to anyone.'”
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