The Steelers (11-4) have already clenched a playoff berth and are in excellent shape to be the AFC’s No. 2 seed, thus receiving an ultra-important bye in the wild-card round and a home game in the divisional round.
However, the Patriots (12-2) are clearly the best team in the AFC and a matchup nightmare for Dick LeBeau’s defense so long as Tom Brady is healthy, evident by Brady’s 6-1 career mark as a starter against the Steelers (although that could easily be 3-3 if New England did not steal Steeler signals in two AFC championship games at Heinz Field and yes, I still believe those cheats should have an asterik placed beside two of their three Super Bowl wins).
Moreover, an ideal scenario would have the Steelers not playing the Ravens (10-4) or Chargers (8-6) in the divisional round and playing anyone but the Patriots in the AFC championship game, which would also be at Heinz Field if New England is ousted in the divisional round.
Here is what needs to transpire to give Pittsburgh its best chance of winning a seventh Super Bowl title, because the Steelers would be unlikely to win a conference championship game at a New England squad that has not lost at home since 2006 despite being more down in recent years than the Patriots were in the first half of last decade.
First, obviously Pittsburgh must secure the No. 2 seed and the AFC North title by either (A) winning at Cleveland in week No. 17 or (B) ideally seeing the Browns upset the visiting Ravens this weekend, which would allow Pittsburgh to inactivate or rest most of its key players against the Browns and also make it less likely that Pittsburgh could see Baltimore in the divisional playoffs.
Now, the Steelers can beat the Ravens and would be favored to do so as long as Raven-slayer Ben Roethlisberger is healthy and especially with a potential game at Heinz Field. But the Ravens are the team among the six the Steelers could realistically face in a divisional-round game in Pittsburgh that Steeler fans should least want to face.
In short, here is the order of potential playoff opponents Pittsburgh fans should want to meet in the upcoming AFC playoffs:
1. Jacksonville (8-6) – A nice matchup for both sides of the ball and revenge for the home playoff loss after the 2007 season to a much-better Jaguars squad than this one.
2. Kansas City (9-5) – Run-based offense is a perfect matchup for LeBeau’s defense. The Chiefs are better defensively than the Jaguars, but there is no way this youthful team could come into Pittsburgh and win a second consecutive playoff game this year.
3. Indianapolis (8-6) – I never want to face Peyton Manning, but this injury-laden Colts squad scares me less than any that have made the playoffs with Manning. Stick Ike Taylor on Reggie Wayne and the Steelers have no other matchup problems in what would ideally be a windy blizzard at Heinz Field.
4. New York Jets (10-4) – I know they beat us two weeks ago in Pittsburgh, but that does not happen if Troy Polamalu plays or if we get the pass interference calls that should have been flagged and would be for a home playoff team. The thought of Mark Sanchez coming into Pittsburgh for a playoff game is wonderful and Pittsburgh moved the ball far better than expected against a strong Jets’ defense two weeks ago. This could be a loss for sure, but I would give the Steelers a 65% shot of winning this game, especially with 2-3 weeks rest and the Jets having to win a road game the week before.
5. San Diego (8-6) – Yes, the Steelers own the Chargers, San Diego has absolutely no run game, the injury to Antonio Gates takes away a key weapon, and all their big WRs are actually a good matchup for the Steelers CBs. However, this is the best defense the Chargers have had in recent years and Phillip Rivers would regularly and successfully pick on Steeler CBs Bryant McFadden and William Gay, sort of like any decent NFL QB regularly picks on those two.
6. Baltimore (10-4) – Always a bloodbath against our mirror image. I hate these guys, but respect them so much.
7. New England (12-2) – Steeler fans have too much hubris if they want to see a rematch against a team that dominated Pittsburgh in all facets of the game from start to finish in mid-Novemember at Heinz Field. Yes, Pittsburgh could win at New England, but the odds of doing so would be long.
Currently, this is how teams would be seeded in the AFC playoffs: (1) New England, (2) Pittsburgh, (3) Kansas City, (4) Indianapolis, (5) Baltimore, (6) N.Y. Jets. The negatives of this are that (A) I think both road teams would have a great chance of winning in the wild-card round, meaning Pittsburgh would face Baltimore in the divisional round and (B) the Colts are in the playoffs instead of the Jaguars.
Ideally, this is how teams would be seeded for the playoffs: (1) New England, (2) Pittsburgh, (3) Kansas City, (4) Jacksonville, (5) New York Jets, (6) Baltimore. For this to happen, the Colts would need to lose either at Oakland or at home versus the Titans while Jacksonville wins out, the Ravens lose once (most likely to the Browns) and the Jets win out, because Baltimore has a head-to-head edge over the Jets, and Kansas City wins out, thus keeping the dangerous Chargers out of the playoffs.
This scenario would mean that Baltimore would travel to New England for a divisional playoff game if the Ravens win in the wild-card round, with the Steelers ideally facing Jacksonville. However, even better than the Steelers not playing the Ravens would be that Pittsburgh needs someone to knock of the Pats. Based on personnel matchups, the two teams most capable of doing so would be the Ravens (who won at New England in the playoffs last year) and San Diego.
Of course, Pittsburgh wants San Diego out of the playoffs to improve its chances of reaching an amazing 7th conference championship (i.e., NFL Final Four) in the last 15 years, which would be an amazing accomplishment this year with all the adversity the Steelers have had on and off the field.
Plus, the beauty of the Ravens facing the Pats is even if Baltimore does not win, you know the Ravens will physically beat up New England, giving the Steelers a better shot of winning at Foxboro the following week. Ideally, though, the Steelers and Ravens would meet in an AFC championship for the second time in three seasons and no NFL officials show up so these two badass teams are allowed to play football the way it is supposed to be play, which is what transpired in Jan. 2009.