201511015pdSteelersSports03

Time for Steelers to Turn Attention to Wild Card

201511015pdSteelersSports03

The Pittsburgh Steelers faced their toughest test of 2015 on Sunday against the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals. The team fought valiantly, but even with Ben Roethlisberger back in the lineup, it was the explosive offense that proved to be the team’s undoing.

At 4-4, the Steelers trail the Bengals by 3.5 games in the AFC North, and it might be time to shift focus to a wild card spot if the franchise wants to play football in January.

Here’s the situation: given the current standings, it’s likely that the two wild card teams will come from two different divisions, unlike in 2014, when the AFC North sent both the Bengals and Ravens to the playoffs. That means that any team that finishes 2nd in its division has a 50-50 shot of securing one of these spots.

From there, it’s probably fair to count out the AFC South. It’s looking more likely with each passing week that an 8-8-or-worse record will be enough to win that division, which would almost certainly disqualify whoever finishes second from making claim to a wild card.

So the two positions will be shared between the three runners-up in the AFC North, East and West. The Steelers’ biggest competitions at this stage are the Oakland Raiders (whom they play at home next week) and the New York Jets (currently struggling with injuries to both their first- and second-string quarterbacks).

At 3-4, the Bills and Dolphins both remain an outside chance, but will join the Jets in beating each other up within the division for the rest of the year. Even the 3-5 Chiefs – fresh off a demolition of the Lions in London – could emerge as a threat pending a late-season run, which could prove problematic considering they already hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Steelers.

So where does all that put Pittsburgh? Short answer: the next two games are must-win.

For too long, the lowly Raiders have been a thorn in the team’s side. Now that the league’s villains are back to playing above-average football, a win would be huge come season’s end when both teams are still fighting for a playoff berth. The week after, Pittsburgh will have a chance to undoubtedly close the casket on Cleveland’s season. Playoff aspirations aside, that should be as much motivation as needed to put out the win there.

A 6-4 record heading into a much-needed bye week will be imperative ahead of the Steelers’ brutal home stretch. Any less and Steeler Nation could once again find themselves on the outside looking in, despite another season of grand expectations.

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