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Steelers Can Get Away With One More Letdown And Still Win AFC North

So the Steelers are only a half-game behind the Bengals in the AFC North. They’re so close that the Bengals can smell the Primanti’s on their breath.

The Steelers scored 40 or more points for the third time this season, a franchise record, in their 42-21 win Sunday at Cincinnati. It was their biggest margin of victory on the road since they beat the Browns 41-9 in the 2010 season finale, and the Steelers (8-5) will win the AFC North for the first time since 2010 if they win their last three games.

You know what that means.

It’s time for a letdown.

And you know what? That’s OK.

We know better than to let visions of playoff sugarplums dance in our heads. These aren’t the 2005 Steelers, who fell to 7-5 and won their final four games out of necessity to get into the playoffs. The 2014 Steelers might be more explosive on offense than the 2005 edition, but they’re woefully inferior on defense.

This maddeningly inconsistent bunch has lost to the Buccaneers and Jets, both 2-11. These Steelers aren’t equipped to plow their way into the playoffs with four straight wins. They inevitably will lose another game this season.

And we’re cool with that. After all, Steelers fans are nothing if not understanding, right?

As long as the Steelers don’t lose more than one, they still have a realistic chance to win the AFC North and have a home playoff game.

So if the Steelers defense is going to get shredded by Matt Ryan Sunday at Atlanta, even if Julio Jones doesn’t play, that’s fine as long as they beat the Chiefs at home in Week 16 and the Bengals at home in Week 17.

Or perhaps the Steelers would prefer to be punched in the mouth at Heinz Field by the Chiefs in Week 16. That would uphold their tradition of dropping a home game against a conference foe outside their division in December, just like they did against the Chargers in 2012 and the Dolphins last season.

If the Steelers pull a stinkeroo against the Chiefs, we won’t judge. Ben Roethlisberger would just have to win Sunday’s scoring joust against Ryan and the Steelers would have to close out the season by beating the Bengals at Heinz Field.

We’d be back to scoreboard watching with another Steelers slip-up, but that’s part of the fun of the NFL in December, right?

It’s not like the Falcons need Jones to make mincemeat of the Steelers defense. The Saints, who are tied with the Falcons atop the AFC South at 5-8, ran freely on the Heinz Field sod despite the invisible fence the Steelers built around Jimmy Graham.

Here’s how the Steelers still can win the AFC North even if they lose one of their next two games.

If they lose Sunday at Atlanta but finish 10-6:

  • The Steelers must win their last two games (KC, CIN).
  • The Bengals (8-4-1) must go 1-2 in their last three games (at CLE, DEN, at PIT).
  • The Ravens (8-5) must lose one of their last three (JAX, at HOU, CLE).

A 1-2 record for the Bengals isn’t as improbable as it sounds. Johnny Manziel’s debut as the Browns’ starting quarterback will make the barks a little louder in the Dawg Pound, and Denver (10-3) won’t be easy. If the Bengals lose at least one of those games, the Steelers will finish ahead of them in this scenario.

It’s not quite as easy to find a loss among the Ravens’ last three games. Maybe Houston (7-6) will be a problem, and the Ravens’ defense figures to eventually show some cracks without Haloti Ngata. If the Steelers and Ravens both finish 10-6, with the Steelers sweeping the Bengals, the Steelers will win the tiebreaker because of a better division record.

If the Steelers split their next two games and beat the Bengals at home, they need not worry about the Browns (7-6). After hosting the Bengals, the Browns hit the road for their last two games. Even if Manziel somehow leads the Browns to victories over the Bengals, Panthers (4-8-1) and Ravens, the Steelers would beat them in a tiebreaker because they’d have a better conference record.

If the Steelers lose to Kansas City but finish 10-6:

If the Bengals go 1-2, the Steelers still would win the tiebreaker over a 10-6 Ravens team (division record) and a 10-6 Browns team. It would go to the No. 3 tiebreaker over the Browns, which is record in common games. The Steelers would be 6-2 against the NFC South and AFC South. The Browns would be 5-3.

The Steelers also would win a three-way tiebreaker if the Ravens and Browns both finish 10-6. The Ravens would be the first team eliminated because their division record would be 2-4 and the Browns and Steelers would both be 4-2. Then it reverts to the Steelers’ common games advantage over the Browns.

If the Steelers win their next two but feel the need to get one more clunker out of their system and lose to the Bengals, well, then they’d probably have to fight for a wild-card spot. It would take tons of permutations and calculations to figure out their playoff chances if that happens.

It would be a whole lot easier for the Steelers if they just won their last three games. But when have they made things easy on themselves this year?

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