The Pittsburgh Steelers open their 2012-2013 playoff season this weekend when they host the Cincinnati Bengals in a game that will almost certainly decide the 6th playoff spot in the AFC. The Steelers currently sit 7th in the AFC at 7-7, a game behind the Bengals for the second Wild Card spot. Because the Steelers won in Cincinnati back in October, however, they control their own destiny to make the playoffs. Moreover, thanks to the freefall that is taking place in Baltimore, the Steelers are still alive to win the AFC North and be the #4 seed in the upcoming playoffs.
The debacle in Dallas
The Steelers enter the weekend licking their wounds a bit, having gacked away a game in Dallas that they dominated from the 2nd quarter on thanks largely to a brutal fumble by Antonio Brown and an even more brutal interception by Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers’ defense was gashed at times by Tony Romo, due in large part to the fact that they were playing without their top 3 CB’s for most of the second half. More troubling, however, were the drops and mental mistakes that have plagued the WR corps all season, the turnover problem that is now deep into its second season, and the inability to run the ball against a mediocre run defense. The 2012 Steelers team is mirroring the 2009 team in its ability to give games away and lose to teams it should beat, and the season is now on the brink as a result.
First things first – the Bengals
Sadly, this may be the best running game this team has.
For any playoff scenarios to come into play, the Steelers have to beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. The Bengals come in at 8-6 with wins in 4 of their last 5 games, and the only loss was at the final gun to Dallas in a game they Bengals controlled for 3+ quarters. The recent play of the Bengals is in stark contrast to the Steelers, who have lost 2 straight and 4 of their last 5. The Steelers have historically dominated the Bengals, going 33-11 against Cincinnati since 1991 and having won 5 straight. Oddly, however, the Steelers’ dominance has been more pronounced in Cincinnati, with Pittsburgh having lost in Cincinnati only twice since 1999. The Steelers are “only” 7-4 against the Bengals at Heinz Field since the facility opened in 2001.
The Steelers come into the game a good bit healthier than they’ve been at any point the last few months, with CB’s Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen and RT Mike Adams all expected to return. That said, CB Ike Taylor completely shut down WR A.J. Green in the first matchup this season, limiting Green to 1 catch for 7 yards, and Taylor will miss Sunday’s rematch. Moreover, LG Willie Colon is out for the season, and the running game has badly deteriorated since he suffered the knee injury that ended his season a few weeks ago. The Bengals’ defense has played extremely well during its 5-game run, allowing only 15 points a game during that stretch, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis has topped 100 yards in 4 of the last 5 games as well.
By contrast, the Steelers’ running game has almost completely disappeared the last 6 weeks, as no Steelers’ back has topped 60 yards in a game since November 4th(!) against the Giants, and the Steelers have plummeted to 26th in the NFL in rushing offense. Given the disappearing running game, as most Steelers’ games do, this contest will likely boil down to how well Ben Roethlisberger plays. Roethlisberger has struggled at times since he returned from missing 3 1/2 games with a rib injury, missing open receivers and throwing a few brutal picks. He’s not been helped by his WR corps, with drops becoming an epidemic among Mike Wallace, Manny Sanders, and Antonio Brown.
Things are very simple for the Steelers right now. If they win their last two games against Cincinnati and Cleveland, they will make the playoffs. Their seeding, however, could be anywhere from the 4th seed down to the 6th seed. Here’s how things stand:
If the Steelers win out and Baltimore wins either of its last two games (home v. the Giants and @Cincinnati), the Ravens win the division and secure the #4 seed. The Steelers would then be either the 5th seed or the 6th seed. If the Colts win either of their last two games (@KC and home v. Houston), the Steelers are the 6th seed. If the Colts were to lose their last two games while the Steelers win out, the Steelers are the 5th seed.
If the Steelers win out and Baltimore loses its last two games, the Steelers, Bengals, and Ravens would finish in a 3-way tie at the top of the AFC North. The Steelers would win that tiebreaker based on best H2H record among the 3 teams (the Steelers would be 3-1 against Baltimore and Cincinnati, while the Ravens would be 2-2 and the Bengals 1-3). The Steelers would then be the #4 seed.
If this game happens, season over.
The significance of where the Steelers finish is beyond enormous. Should the Steelers finish 4th, their playoff path would start at home against the Ravens, and then likely take them to Houston. Similarly, should the Steelers finish 5th, they would open in Baltimore and likely go to Houston. Given the way the Ravens are free falling and the fact that the Steelers match up reasonably well with the Texans, these paths would allow for a little bit of hope for a playoff run. Finishing 6th, however, would most likely lead to the Steelers opening in New England, a scenario that is something of a death sentence given the manner in which the Steelers are routinely gashed in New England.
Any and all margin for error for the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers has been left on fields in Dallas and Oakland and Cleveland and Tennessee. Sunday marks the first of hopefully several elimination games for this team, and it’s hard to feel particularly confident with the performances to which we’ve been treated the last month. But hey, at least we have the Penguins. Oh, wait…