The Steelers and NFL Playoffs: Every possible postseason scenario

The Steelers control their own playoff destiny. But what happens if they lose that control?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers and Ravens have been on a Christmas collision course for the last six weeks, and nothing that happened on Sunday changed what should end up being the game that decides the AFC North.


Pittsburgh was left for dead in Cincinnati on Sunday but battled back on the leg of Chris Boswell and the late-game heroics of Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Rogers to earn a pace-setting win in the division. The Ravens nearly lost a game in which they had a two-score lead with very little time on the clock, facing the Eagles offense that resembles a triage unit more than a football team right now. Eagles coach Doug Pederson opted to go for the win down a point with four seconds to play, eschewing a game-tying PAT before failing on the two-point conversion that would have dropped the Ravens to 7-7.

While the Ravens’ loss would have all but locked up the division for the Steelers — needing just one win in two games and still to face Cleveland on New Year’s Day — the victory for the rivals in purple puts an enormous amount of importance on next Sunday’s Christmas tilt.

Win for the Steelers and they are in. Division champs. Hooray.

But that’s not everything.

This list of potential playoff scenarios is everything, however. (We think.) Here is every possible* postseason scenario for the Steelers with two games left to play. (* – We did not include ‘acts of God’ or ‘acts of Goodell’ like an ill-timed Tom Brady suspension, so maybe not every scenario. Still…most.)

So before jumping in to this convoluted mess with two weeks to play, know this: If the Steelers win, they’re in. That’s all that really matters.


NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals
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The Steelers face Baltimore and Cleveland to end the season and if Mike Tomlin’s team wins both games, they are in the playoffs as AFC North division champs.

At 11-5, the Steelers would be locked into at worst the third seed, but still have an outside shot at a bye, albeit a bit unlikely.

The Steelers could end with the same record as Oakland and/or Kansas City as AFC West division winners. Oakland is 11-3 and faces Indianapolis (7-7) and Denver (8-6) to end the year. The Chiefs are 10-4 and play Denver and San Diego (5-8). Should both teams end 11-5, Kansas City will win the division by nature of their head-to-head victories and the Steelers would pass them in the AFC standings by nature of their 43-14 drubbing of the Chiefs in Week 4.

Should the Chiefs and Raiders both lose twice, Oakland would win their division, but would have their conference record fall from 8-2 now to 8-4, while the Steelers would advance from 7-3 to 9-3, thereby winning the first tie-breaker after any potential head-to-head contest.

More likely would be that the Steelers finish with the third seed, then host either Miami, Baltimore, Tennessee, Houston or Denver in the Wild Card round, while Tennessee or Houston — whichever wins the AFC South — faces the loser of the Chiefs and Raiders divisional tussle.

Win-Lose or Lose-Win

NFL: New York Giants at Pittsburgh Steelers
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Order matters.

If the Steelers beat Baltimore then lose to Cleveland they’d finish the season 10-6 to Baltimore’s at-best 9-7. The Ravens would likely miss the playoffs and the Steelers would be in line for the third seed should Tennessee win the South. If Houston wins and ends the year with the same record as the Steelers, there’s a chance Pittsburgh could drop to the fourth seed, meaning they’d likely host the loser of Oakland and Kansas City.

A loss to Baltimore then a win over the Browns would put the Steelers at 10-6, needing Baltimore to lose to the Bengals in Week 17 for Pittsburgh to win the division.

This is where things start to get really, really messy…and even messier if the Steelers lose both games, which we address in the section below.

If the Steelers finish 10-6 but don’t win the division, they could miss the playoffs entirely if both Kansas City and Miami finish 11-5, but don’t win their divisions. Should Miami finish 10-6, they would advance ahead of Pittsburgh by nature of their head-to-head win.

Should Kansas City be tied with Pittsburgh, the Steelers would advance.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers
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If all three teams are tied at 10-6, the first useable tiebreaker given Pittsburgh’s 1-1 record against the other two would be their conference record. Miami and Kansas City would be 7-5, and Pittsburgh would be 8-4. The Steelers would earn the 5th seed and Kansas City and Miami would go through another tiebreaker round to determine the 6th seed. (It seems, right now based on common opponents, Miami would advance if Kansas City loses the next two games.)

Should Miami beat Buffalo on Christmas eve, the Steelers will go into Christmas day knowing they have to beat Baltimore to make the playoffs, or be left hoping Kansas City loses both of their final two games to create this odd three-way tie.

Denver can still get to 10-6 as well, but their conference record would be 7-5, behind the Steelers as long as Pittsburgh wins one more game. Losing to Miami earlier this season makes the Dolphins a bigger threat, but if all three teams finish 10-6 and none win their division, the Steelers would advance based on an 8-4 conference record.

Either way, Denver will need to beat Kansas City on Christmas, in a game that starts after the Steelers’ game is over. Then, a week later, either Denver would need to win against Oakland, Kansas City would need to lose to San Diego, or both.


"Hi." "Hey." "See you on Christmas."

"Hi." "Hey." "See you on Christmas."

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

There is a real possibility the Steelers could lose to Baltimore, then with one game left in the Browns’ season, currently 0-14, who knows what could happen? Maybe they come to Pittsburgh and win. Stranger things…

Wait. Stranger things have never happened in the NFL than winless Cleveland coming to Pittsburgh in a Week 17 game the Steelers need to get into the playoffs and leaving victorious. But, again, act of God and whatnot. You never know.

If the Steelers lose both games, Tomlin’s crew will end the year 9-7. Baltimore, by nature of the Christmas win, would be at worst 9-7, and would win the division even if they lose against Cincinnati in Week 17.

At 9-7, the Steelers would need A TON of help, battling for the one remaining Wild Card slot against up to four other teams. Maybe.

All this is based on the Dolphins losing the last two games of the season, because 9-7 won’t matter if Miami wins just one more game. If Miami loses both they’ll be 6-6 in the conference, behind the Steelers, but the head-to-head win over Pittsburgh takes precedence over conference record.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Miami Dolphins
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One way Pittsburgh could advance is if Miami is eliminated before that stage. The NFL tiebreaker rules pit division rivals against each other in three-or-four-team playoff fights, and if Buffalo wins out and Miami loses out, they would both end up with 9-7 records, 1-1 against each other, 3-3 in the division and 6-6 in the conference. Their records against common opponents would be identical, which would move to the next tiebreaker of ‘strength of victory.’

By nature of Miami defeating Pittsburgh and San Diego and Buffalo beating Jacksonville and Cincinnati, though, the Dolphins would likely advance on their strength of victory, then would get into the playoffs ahead of Pittsburgh by nature of their head-to-head victory.

Unless the Steelers can find another Wild Card dance partner.

In the AFC South, Houston plays Cincinnati next week and Tennessee plays Jacksonville, then they face each other in Week 17. Tennessee needs to win out, because with Houston’s 5-0 record in the division, if they finish tied at 9-7 with a season split, the Titans would lose the AFC south based on division record.

If somehow that mess in the AFC East went the Steelers’ way — or just for the due diligence of multiple-team ties — Tennessee would be 6-6 in the AFC should the Titans finish 9-7 but lose the division. Advantage Steelers.

If Houston finishes 9-7 and Tennessee wins the division at 10-6, Houston would be 7-5 in the AFC. The Steelers and Texans would both have the same records against common opponents, too, leaving that tiebreaker to ‘strength of victory,’ which could come down to if Detroit or the Giants finish with a better record.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

So even though Pittsburgh would lose out on a head-to-head Wild Card race with Miami, a three-team Wild Card race only factors in head-to-head if one team sweeps. Miami didn’t play Houston and lost to Tennessee, so a three-way tiebreaker with either would fall to conference record.

If Miami-Pittsburgh-Tennessee finish tied, then Pittsburgh advances. If Miami-Pittsburgh-Houston finish tied, then Miami is eliminated and the whole strength of victory scenario above rolls out.

Confusing? Well, good. Because none of that factors back in Denver.

If the Broncos win one of their last two games against Kansas City and Oakland they can still get into the mix, but a 9-7 Broncos team would be 6-6 in the conference, behind the Steelers.

Somehow, albeit slim, 9-7 might still be good enough for the Steelers, but that would be relying on the Bills to win a game, then New England beating Miami in a game the Patriots could be resting their starters if they already have home field wrapped up, plus at least one other team finishing 9-7, and then still some more help from teams in the NFC.

Right now, the Steelers control their own destiny. Win and they’re in. For now, that’s all that matters on Christmas.