Sunday’s 19-16 victory over the Baltimore Ravens wasn’t the most complete game ever authored by the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field – this AFC North rivalry rarely produces anything pleasing to the eye – but it did instill some genuine playoff hope for the first time all season.
After two wins in a row, the Steelers (2-4) still face long odds of getting back in the division race, as the first-place Bengals improved to 5-2 and have manageable games against the Jets, Dolphins, Ravens and Browns coming up before their bye week. Also, Pittsburgh has already lost to Cincinnati once this year, so let’s forget about that for now.
But although the division title may be out of reach, the AFC wild-card race presents a more attainable goal. The Chargers and Jets are tied for the second wild card, as both sport 4-3 records. Below them is a wide swath of mediocrity, featuring the Dolphins at 3-3 and no fewer than four teams (Ravens, Browns, Titans, Bills) at 3-4.
That no one has staked a true claim to the final AFC postseason berth is both encouraging and deflating to the Steelers’ chances. On the one hand, Pittsburgh is just 1 1/2 games behind San Diego and New York, and the rest of the teams in the race haven’t exactly looked like world-beaters in the season’s first few weeks.
On the other hand, the Steelers have just recently started to resemble a winning football team and have seven teams (including the 2-4 Raiders) to overcome if they hope to sneak into the playoff field. Pittsburgh could go 7-3 the rest of the way and if the Titans post a 6-3 mark over that span, Tennessee will keep its nose ahead by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreak.
It’s going to take an impressive surge and large amount of good fortune for the Steelers to make things interesting heading into December. Their bye week is already spent, so the next 10 weeks will be a test of endurance as much as anything else.
Pittsburgh’s attempt at a near-miracle comeback continues next Sunday in Oakland. After that, a trip to New England beckons. If the Steelers can manage to win both, they will be truly back in the hunt. If they win only one of the next two, they’ll stay on the periphery.
It’s likely the Steelers have just two losses to burn before they play themselves out of the chase. It’s not the ideal situation, but after an 0-4 start, it’s the best they could’ve hoped for.