The Steelers’ comeback victory at Baltimore two weeks ago put them in a commanding position to win the AFC North and claim the more important No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, thus securing a first-round bye.
Most probable scenarios point to this transpiring. However, one real possibility could result in a tiebreaker scenario so close that it would show just how equal Pittsburgh and Baltimore are as worthy rivals.
Ideally, host Pittsburgh (10-3) will beat the struggling New York Jets (9-4), and defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans (10-3) will venture into Baltimore (9-4) and beat what should be a tired Ravens team following its overtime win at Houston on Monday night.
The Steelers would then just need to beat 1-11 Carolina in Pittsburgh to secure the division title and a playoff bye. A banged-up Steelers squad could then have most of its key players not dress or play minimally in a week 17 finale at Cleveland.
This would be a perfect scenario for veteran players like Hines Ward, Brett Keisel, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Flozell Adams, all of whom would benefit greatly from two weeks of rest before a home playoff game.
But those two weeks off will likely not occur if both the Steelers and Ravens win this weekend. Baltimore in Week 16 and Pittsburgh in Week 17 have tricky road games in Cleveland against a Browns team (5-8) that beat both the Saints and Patriots by double digits this year. In contrast, Pittsburgh’s Week 16 home game against the Panthers and the Ravens’ Week 17 hosting of the Bengals are about as surefire projected wins as you can find in the NFL.
If both AFC North powers win this Sunday, the Steelers would likely need to win out to avoid tying the Ravens for the division title. But let’s say Baltimore wins out, and Pittsburgh wins all but the season finale at Cleveland. ESPN’s The NFL Playoff Machine had the Ravens as divisional champs when I projected all other games, but I could not figure out why that was until going deep down the list of the NFL tie-breaking procedures between two teams within the same division.
Let’s go through this in order for the hypothetical Steelers (12-4) and Ravens (12-4) working from the assumptions in the previous paragraph:
1. Head-to-head – Push as each team won in the opponent’s home stadium.
2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division – Push as both teams would be 4-2 within AFC North games.
3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games – Push. Both teams would finish 10-4 against common opponents.
4. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference – Push. Both teams would post 9-3 AFC records.
5. Strength of victory (figured by calculating the combined winning percentage of the opponents a team has beaten) – Push. Unbelievably, I had this as equal again.
In their 12 games against common opponents (other than these two), the Steelers have a win over the Falcons while the Ravvens would have a win over the Saints. I have Atlanta projected to finish 14-2 and New Orleans 11-5 in this scenario, giving Pittsburgh a three-game edge in this category.
However, the Ravens would have an extra win over the Browns and the Steelers an extra victory over the Bengals. Assuming a Pittsburgh loss to Cleveland, I have the Browns finishing 6-10 and the Bengals 3-13, eradicating that three-game edge. Among the two opponents faced by each team and not by the other, the Steelers defeated the Titans and Raiders, while Baltimore beat Denver and Houston. My projected records for these four teams: Titans (5-11), Raiders (7-9), Broncos (4-12), Texans (8-8). Add them up and this is a push.
6. Strength of schedule (records of all teams each squad played that season) – Push. Add up records from the bottom four above, because both teams lost to New England.
7. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed – Ravens currently get the edge but that could change via an extra field goal this weekend. The Steelers currently rank No. 1 in the AFC in defensive scoring while Baltimore is No. 2. However, the Ravens rank No. 8 in the AFC in scoring, whereas Pittsburgh is No. 10. Lowest combined ranking wins this category and Baltimore’s ranks add up to 10 and Pittsburgh’s add up to 11. Of course, the Steelers’ 22.3 offensive points per game is a smidgen behind the Titans (22.4), who have been among the NFL’s worst offensive teams in recent weeks. Let’s say for the heck of it that this one ends up a push as well.
8. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed – You guessed it, push again. Pittsburgh currently ranks 16th in the NFL in scoring offense, while Baltimore is 14th. In scoring defense, Pittsburgh is No. 2 overall and Baltimore No. 4. Both add up to 18.
9. Best net points in common games – Edge Pittsburgh. Currently, Pittsburgh has an aggregate score of 290-198, while the Ravens are 294-229. However, subtract Pittsburgh’s games against the Titans and Raiders, and the Steelers’ margin is 236-184 for a 52-point difference. Subtract the Ravens’ wins over Denver and Houston, and Baltimore’s margin is 229-184 for a 45-point margin.
What does this all mean? Most importantly, Pittsburgh needs to win this week against the Jets and see Baltimore lose to New Orleans; or the Steelers need to win out; or Cleveland needs to beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh; or the Steelers need to lose just once more but against the Jets, which would give Pittsburgh all potential tiebreakers over Baltimore due to a better division record.
And if the crazy scenario above does play out, Pittsburgh definitely needs to blow out an opponent like the hapless Panthers, because those points could make the difference between a first-round bye and divisional playoff game at home, or going on the road for the wild-card round.