Steelers playoff path: How Pittsburgh can get in, and why it might catch a break in Week 17

Mike Tomlin provided a quick and clear answer Sunday night when asked how the injury-battered Steelers have gone from 1-4 to 8-5 and on the inside track of the AFC playoff picture. 

Tomlin, the Steelers longtime head coach (who on Sunday clinched his 13th consecutive non-losing season), said that it was his team's ability to stay in the present that has likely led to Pittsburgh's recent run of success. 

"We're just singularly focused on Buffalo, that's probably why we're here," said Tomlin, whose team would be the sixth seed if the playoffs started today. "We don't care about the three games, we got a big five star matchup in Heinz Field Sunday night. We're excited about it." 

While Tomlin and the Steelers won't allow themselves to look past Sunday night's game against the Bills, we will. As it currently stands, Pittsburgh would travel to Arrowhead Stadium to face the Chiefs in the wild card round. While winning the AFC North is a near impossibility (the Steelers would have to win out and the Ravens would have to lose their final three games for that to happen), Pittsburgh could move up to the fifth seed with a win over the Bills on Sunday. In that scenario, the Steelers would likely face the AFC South champion -- likely either the Titans or Texans -- in the wild card round. 

While unlikely, there is also a scenario where the Steelers would head to Foxborough in the wild-card round. For that to happen, however, the Bills would likely have to win out while beating the Steelers and Patriots in the process. That is also under the assumption that the Bills would win any tiebreaker scenario against the Patriots if the teams split their season series and also ended up with the same record. 

In any event, the mostly likely playoff scenarios for the Steelers involve a wild-card matchup with either the AFC West or AFC South champion. Here's a look at what Pittsburgh's remaining three games, along with the other remaining schedules for the teams that are also vying for one of the AFC's two wild card spots. The teams are placed in order of their current AFC standing. 

TeamRecordRemaining schedule 
Texans8-5 (1st in AFC South)at Titans, at Buccaneers, Titans 

Bills

9-4 (2nd in AFC East)

at Steelers, at Patriots, Jets

Steelers

8-5 (2nd in AFC North)

Bills, at Jets, at Ravens

Titans 

8-5 (2nd in AFC South)

Texans, Saints, at Texans

Browns 

6-7 (3rd in AFC North) 

at Cardinals, Ravens, at Bengals 

The Texans, who endured an ugly loss at home Sunday to the Broncos, have one of the most difficult remaining schedules of the five teams mentioned above, with two games left against AFC South rival Tennessee (who are 6-1 in their past seven games) and a road game against the suddenly surging Buccaneers. Tennessee, who has found its stride since putting quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the starting lineup, also has an even tougher matchup in between their two games against the Texans: a Week 16 showdown against the 10-3 Saints in the Superdome. 

While both of those AFC South teams could certainly make the playoffs, it's more likely that one will knock the other one out of playoff contention while opening the door for the Steelers and Bills. 

Speaking of Week 17, the Steelers may receive some unexpected help in the form of their biggest rival: the Ravens. If the Ravens already have the No. 1 seed locked up, they may consider resting Lamar Jackson and several other starters for their regular season-finale against the Steelers. That would surely give Pittsburgh, who may need to win that game in order to clinch a playoff spot, a greater shot at beating the Ravens after taking them to overtime back in Week 5. The Ravens, with wins in their next two games (at home vs. the Jets and at Cleveland) would clinch the No. 1 seed.

There's also a chance that the Steelers may have a playoff spot locked up before their Week 17 showdown. If the Steelers win their next two games, and either the Titans or Texans lose their next two games, Pittsburgh would secure a playoff spot. The only remaining drama would be whether or not they could move up to the fourth seed and a chance at avoiding the Chiefs in the wild card round. 

While nine wins may be enough, Pittsburgh may need to go at least 2-1 in their final three games to clinch their seventh trip to the playoffs since 2010. The guess is that whoever wins Sunday's game at Heinz Field will ultimately secure the fifth seed, while the loser of that game will need to a win in Week 16 to remain on the inside track of the AFC playoff picture. 

Ultimately, the Steelers, like they did this time a year ago, control their playoff fate. But unlike 2018, the Steelers are playing their best football at the right time. And despite their laundry list of injuries, Pittsburgh has discovered its winning formula for success in 2019: a dominant, opportunistic defense, a clutch special teams unit and an offense that seldom beats itself while making just enough plays to complement its defense. It's not always pretty, but it should be good enough to lift the Steelers into the postseason. 

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