Despite the two teams’ contrasting records, the Buffalo Bills (2-8) do pose a threat Sunday against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3). In particular, Pittsburgh fans should be concerned about cerebral Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and an under-rated Buffalo receiving corps that torched host Baltimore for 382 yards and 4 passing TDs earlier this season, and tallied 316 yards and another 4 TDs in a 49-31 win over a solid Cincinnati secondary last week.
However, assuming the Pittsburgh offense does not self-destruct against a bad 25th-ranked Buffalo defense, the Steelers should notch another win on Sunday. Moreover, assuming the rest of the NFL goes as expected this week, it would then be difficult to fathom the Steelers not making their 23rd post-season appearance over the last 39 years.
A few weeks ago it looked like this fall could mark a repeat of the 2008 season when an 11-5 team (Patriots) was left out of the playoffs; and it seemed a lock that at least one 10-6 team would not qualify for the postseason in a loaded AFC field.
However, now it appears likely that posting a 10-6 record is all that will be needed to secure a wild-card berth into the AFC playoffs, with one wild-card spot each going to the AFC East runner-up between the Patriots (9-2) and Jets (9-2), and the AFC North runner-up between the Ravens (7-3) and Steelers (7-3).
That is largely because many of the contenders in the AFC have collapsed. Tennessee (5-4) is disintegrating internally. With rookie 6th-round pick Rusty Smith being forced to start at QB, the Titans should lose their third consecutive game against a Houston (4-5) squad that plays no defense. Neither of these teams will finish with 10 wins.
Nor will the Jaguars, who despite their 6-4 record are really a fraud that will be lucky to finish 9-7. Jacksonville does not have an easy game left on its schedule and should lose at the Giants this Sunday. Miami and Oakland are both quarterback-challenged 5-5 teams that square off as well. Moreover, even if any of these teams finished with the same record as Pittsburgh, the Steelers have head-to-head wins over the Dolphins, Raiders, and Titans, and a better conference record than the Texans.
Probably the greatest chance for a team to make the playoffs over the Steelers would come from the AFC West, where the Chargers (5-5) are once again playing well in the second half of the season and the Chiefs (6-4) have a relatively easy scheduling remaining. However, the Steelers have two more wins than the Chargers and Kansas City was blown out by Denver two weeks ago.
Another reason for my confidence on Pittsburgh being nearly assured of a playoff spot with a win Sunday is largely due to a relatively easy remaining Steelers’ schedule for the rest of the season. After Buffalo, the Steelers play at Baltimore, Cincinnati at home, the Jets at home, Carolina at home and at Cleveland.
No team in the NFL is a guaranteed a win in any game. But Pittsburgh hosting Carolina is about as close as you can get to a sure victory unless the Rooneys suddenly decide to trade Ben Roethlisberger for Brian St. Pierre. That would put the Steelers at nine wins, meaning they would need to win one of their remaining four.
While all four are loseable games, the Steelers would be favored over the Browns (3-7) and Bengals (2-8), both of whom Pittsburgh has already beaten once this year, and would have at least a 45% chance of beating either the Ravens or Jets, neither of which having the passing attack to exploit the Pittsburgh corners the way the Patriots did two weeks ago.
In other words, beat Buffalo and Pittsburgh can then focus on revenging an earlier loss to Baltimore, winning the AFC North, and securing an ultra-important, opening-round bye in the AFC playoffs. However, just by beating the Bills, the Steelers would be a near-lock to make the playoffs.