By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report, special to the Point of Pittsburgh
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Now let me make this clear: the Steelers’ game against the Browns in Week 17 is virtually irrelevant. The Steelers have clinched the 3rd seed in the playoffs. This game will likely be less of a tune-up and more of a game where the starters will be rested for the Wild Card matchup against the 6th seed. This will give them a chance to give some of the big names a chance to rest, while also allowing some injured players like Stephon Tuitt and Ladarius Green to get some extra time to make it back in the playoffs.
While the AFC playoff teams are all set in stone, the seedings are far from it. As it currently stands, the only two seeds that have been solidified are the #3 seed (the Steelers) and the #4 seed (the Texans). The Patriots, Raiders, Chiefs, and Dolphins have all clinched the remaining seeds, but there is plenty of flexibility as to where these teams will end up. Heading into Week 17, the seedings look like this:
- New England (13-2)
- Oakland (12-3)
- Pittsburgh (10-5)
- Houston (9-6)
- Kansas City (11-4)
- Miami (10-5)
That would give Wild Card matchups of Miami at Pittsburgh and Kansas City at Houston. With a win against Miami, the Steelers would head to Oakland to take on the Raiders in the divisional round and the winner of Kansas City/Houston would head to Foxborough to take on the Patriots.
The Patriots have been considered to be the top team in the AFC for the majority of the 2016 season, but interestingly enough, they have not clinched the #1 seed yet. With a loss to the Dolphins and a Raider victory over the Broncos in Week 17, the Raiders would actually claim the #1 seed and the Patriots would be bumped down to the #2 seed. Going along with the scenario with the Dolphins victory over the Patriots, the Chiefs matchup with the Chargers becomes important as well, with a Chiefs loss would bump them down to the #6 seed and would move the Dolphins up to #5. In this scenario, the seeding would be:
- New England
- Kansas City
The matchups would then be Kansas City at Pittsburgh and Miami and Houston. With a Steelers victory, Pittsburgh would then head to New England in the divisional round instead of the AFC Championship game.
All New England has to do to clinch the #1 seed is to defeat the Dolphins or have the Raiders lose to the Broncos. In this event, the Patriots would claim the #1 seed and the Dolphins would clinch the #6 seed. This would create vital matchups for the Raiders and Kansas City. With a Chiefs’ victory over the Chargers and a Raiders’ loss to the Broncos, the Chiefs would win the AFC West and move up to the #2 seed, while the Raiders would fall to the #5 seed. This difference in seeding would be huge, as the Raiders would lose the opportunity to play any home games unless they made it to the AFC Championship game against the #6 seed. But hey, stranger things have happened. With these games, the playoff seeding would look like:
- New England
- Kansas City
Now why does this all matter to the Steelers, who are guaranteed at least one home game during the playoffs? While Week 17 might seem irrelevant on the surface for the Steelers, how everything around them falls can impact the level of difficulty the team will have maneuvering through the playoffs. Consider the quarterbacks who will likely appear in the AFC playoffs this season:
Current AFC playoff QBs:
— Neeta Sreekanth (@NeetaSreekanth) December 25, 2016
The only thing that potentially might change is the possible return of Dolphins’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who partially tore his ACL and MCL a few weeks ago. Reports out of Miami indicate that Tannehill is targeting a return for the Wild Card round, but nothing is 100% right now. Either way, the only two quarterbacks with substantial playoff experience are Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. With the way the playoffs are currently set up, the Steelers would play Matt Moore/Ryan Tannehill in the first week, followed by Matt McGloin in the second round, due to Derek Carr missing the remainder of the season after breaking his leg. In the most likely scenario, the Raiders would be able to close out with a win against the Broncos even without Carr and the Patriots would close out with a win against the Dolphins even with their starters rested. This would prevent the Steelers from having to play the Patriots until the AFC Championship game (unless a team is able to go into Foxborough and upset them beforehand). The Steelers would have a home matchup against the Dolphins and a potential divisional round matchup against the Raiders.
The primary question for the Steelers is which scenario gives them the greatest chances of making it deep into the playoffs and the Super Bowl? Realistically, the Patriots will be the #1 seed, meaning the Steelers would not play them until the AFC Championship game. This would mean that the Steelers would have a divisional round matchup with an AFC West team. Neither the Chiefs or Raiders would be an easy matchup, considering the Steelers would be on the road. The Steelers have not won a game in Oakland since 1995, but the Raiders are not the same team without Derek Carr operating their offense. The Chiefs, on the other hand, have already experienced the wrath of the Steelers offense earlier this season, when the Steelers beat Kansas City 43-14 in Pittsburgh. The difference with the potential divisional round matchup would be that the Steelers would be on the road at Arrowhead Stadium, which is one of the hardest places to play in the NFL. The Chiefs have also been one of the hottest teams in the NFL over the second half of the season, meaning that the second matchup would not be as easy for the Steelers as it was in Week 4.
In regards to first round matchups, the Steelers are fortunate to be playing at home, where they have been substantially better this season. Their matchup will either be with the Dolphins or Chiefs. While the Steelers had success against the Chiefs earlier this season, they were not as fortunate against the Dolphins, losing in Week 6 in Miami. This win for the Dolphins began their season-long turn around, which has led to their first playoff birth since 2008. Both the Steelers and Dolphins have came a long way since then, but like the Raiders, the Dolphins are a very different team without their starting quarterback.
So which scenario would be the best for the Steelers?
In my opinion, the Steelers would have the best chances for success by having the Raiders stay as the #2 seed and the Dolphins finishing as the #6 seed. If Moore gets the nod for the Dolphins in a matchup at Heinz Field, the Steelers would likely be heavy favorites for their Wild Card game. While both the Raiders and Chiefs would be tricky matchups, I feel much more comfortable about the Steelers having to travel to the west coast to play the Carr-less Raiders than traveling to Arrowhead against a hot, fully-loaded Chiefs team. If the Chiefs were able to get through Houston (which I would be surprised if they did not), I believe that they could potentially go into New England and beat the injury-riddled, yet still powerful, Patriots. If this was to happen, the Steelers would have the opportunity to host the AFC Championship game against the Chiefs, which would given them much better odds of punching their ticket to the Super Bowl. Even if the Patriots got the would-be expected win against the Chiefs, the Steelers have the power to give the Pats a nice matchup, especially with a healthy Roethlisberger, Brown, and Bell and the absence of Rob Gronkowski.
In short, the best scenario for the Steelers would be:
- New England
- Kansas City
This would allow them to get a rematch against the Dolphins at home in the Wild Card round and a preferred matchup with the Raiders without Carr in the lineup. At that point, the Steelers would potentially be rolling along to the tune of a 9-game winning streak heading into the AFC Championship game. If they can remain healthy and continue building off of the growth they have had over the past month, the Steelers are a team that no one wants to face in the postseason.