Much like the New York Giants have done in the other conference, the Pittsburgh Steelers have recovered from a horrible start to their season and inserted themselves into the hunt for a playoff berth.
Unlike the 4-6 Giants, who have won four in a row to climb within 1 1/2 games of the NFC East division lead, the Steelers’ primary focus is on the second wild-card spot in the AFC. Also at 4-6, Pittsburgh finds itself only one game behind the Jets and Dolphins, both of whom sport 5-5 records and are tied for the conference’s final playoff position.
It was only two weeks ago that the Steelers were 15th in the 16-team AFC, but consecutive wins over the Bills and Lions at home have boosted them into a six-way tie for eighth. Joining Pittsburgh at 4-6 are the Raiders, Titans, Ravens, Browns and Chargers, with the Bills hanging on at 4-7.
Oakland and Tennessee hold the primary head-to-head tiebreaker against Pittsburgh by virtue of their wins earlier this season, so the Steelers are essentially in 10th place with six games to play. That’s sobering, but what do you expect when you lose your first four games and stumble to the halfway mark at 2-6?
Cincinnati (7-4) may have locked up the AFC North with its blowout win over Cleveland last week, but that Browns loss gives the Steelers an opportunity to put their longtime rivals in the rear-view mirror this Sunday on the shores of Lake Erie. A win at FirstEnergy Stadium would also set up a dramatic Thanksgiving night matchup against Baltimore, whom Pittsburgh has already beaten once this year.
On the other hand, a loss this week would probably mean the Steelers have no more margin for error to sneak into the postseason. While it’s possible the final wild-card spot will be awarded to an 8-8 team, 9-7 is a better bet, even given the vast sea of mediocre teams currently found in the AFC.
Despite their recent improved play, the Steelers are currently one of those mediocre teams. They have six weeks left to prove they’re better than that.