USA Today

Mike Tomlin offered an honest assessment of his team following the Steelers' 36-28 loss to the Vikings last Thursday night. Pittsburgh is "junior varsity" on both the offensive and defensive lines, Tomlin said, and until those units start playing better, the Steelers will struggle to do what they desire to do on the football field. 

Last Thursday's loss dropped the Steelers to 6-6-1 through 13 games. Pittsburgh fell from third to fourth in the AFC North standings and from eighth to 11th in the AFC standings. Assuming that nine wins will be the minimum benchmark to secure the seventh and final playoff spot, the Steelers will have to go 3-1 down the stretch in order to make the playoffs for a second straight year. 

Let's take a deeper dive at the Steelers' playoff outlook by looking at their current positioning, their remaining games and a few things that Pittsburgh will try to improve on in the coming weeks. 

Current playoff position 

The bad news is that the Steelers will have to jump ahead of four teams over the season's last four weeks to make the playoffs. The good news is that Pittsburgh could theoretically make the playoffs as either a wild card team or as a division champion. By virtue of the Cleveland's win over Baltimore and Cincinnati's loss to San Francisco on Sunday, the Steelers are just 1.5 games out of first place in the North. 

Each of the Steelers' remaining four games are against teams that are ahead of them in the AFC standings: Tennessee (9-4), Kansas City (9-4), Baltimore (8-5), and Cleveland (7-6). If Pittsburgh can split their games against the Titans and Chiefs, then defeat both the Browns and Ravens, that would give them nine wins overall as well as a 4-2 record in the AFC North. That may be good enough to capture the North division crown assuming the Ravens, Browns and Bengals finish with nine or fewer wins. 

The Steelers' tie vs. Detroit makes it unlikely that they will have to go down to tiebreaker scenarios when it comes to playoff seeding. But in the event that it does, the Steelers would lose tiebreakers against the Chargers and Bengals. As it currently stands, the Steelers would win tiebreakers over Buffalo, Baltimore, Cleveland and Denver (7-6), which is currently 10th in the AFC standings. 

Pittsburgh is tied with Carolina with the NFL's toughest remaining strength of schedule. Fortunately for them, the Ravens, Bengals, Broncos and Browns have the third, fifth, sixth and seventh toughest remaining schedules, respectively. The Colts, who are currently the No. 6 seed in the AFC, have the 11th toughest remaining schedule. The Bills, who are currently hanging on to the seventh spot in the AFC standings, have the 25th hardest remaining schedule, but do have games the next two weeks against the Patriots and Cardinals

Remaining schedule 

The Steelers' remaining four opponents have a combined record of 33-19. The Titans and Chiefs would be the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds if the playoffs started today, respectively. Baltimore would be the No. 4 seed, while Cleveland is a spot back of the seventh and final playoff spot. The Steelers won a defensive duel in Cleveland in Week 8. Pittsburgh's most recent win was a 20-19 nail-biter against Baltimore in Week 13. 

Here's a look at each of the Steelers' four remaining opponents. 

  • Week 15: vs. Tennessee 
  • Week 16: @ Kansas City 
  • Week 17: vs. Cleveland (Monday Night Football)
  • Week 18: @ Baltimore 

The Titans haven't been the same since losing Derrick Henry after the two-time defending rushing champion suffered a serious foot injury. Tennessee is 6-2 with Henry and 3-2 without their star running back in the starting lineup this season. But after losing consecutive games heading into their bye week, the Titans posted a 20-0 win over the Jaguars on Sunday. While the offense continues to struggle without Henry, Tennessee's defense shut out the Jaguars while allowing just 8 rushing yards and recording four interceptions. 

The Chiefs have found their stride after winning just three of their first seven games. Kansas City has won six straight games following Sunday's 48-9 win over the Raiders. A big reason for the Chiefs' turnaround has been the play of their defense, which has allowed just 65 points during their six-game winning streak. Kansas City's offense continues to be led by Patrick Mahomes, who threw six touchdown passes in his first and only game against the Steelers in 2018. 

Steelers fans are very familiar with their team's last two regular-season opponents. Injuries have put a damper on what was supposed to be a big season for the Browns, who like the Titans played well on Sunday a week after their bye week. The Browns received a solid effort Sunday from quarterback Baker Mayfield, who threw two touchdown passes while making up for a running game that averaged less than 4 yards per carry. Cleveland received a big day from its defensive line, led by Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney and Takkarist McKinley. After a topsy-turvy first 12 games, the Browns have endured and will have a say in who does and who doesn't get into the postseason out of the AFC. 

A near lock to make the playoffs just two weeks ago, the Ravens are 8-5 after consecutive losses to Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Baltimore's playoff hopes nearly took a huge hit when Lamar Jackson sustained an ankle sprain during Sunday's loss to Cleveland. While no one can replace what Jackson can do on a football field, Tyler Huntley has proven to be a capable performer during his limited playing time. Huntley amassed over 320 all-purpose yards on Sunday while directing four scoring drives after Baltimore fell behind 24-3. The Ravens also received an encouraging performance Sunday from rookie receiver Rashod Bateman, who recorded his first career 100-yard game. 

Areas of improvement 

  • Offensive line: While Pittsburgh has found added depth on its offensive line in the form of John Leglue, the unit continues to struggle to create holes for Najee Harris, whose yards-per-carry average is a pedestrian 3.7. The line also allowed five sacks of Ben Roethlisberger during last Thursday night's loss in Minnesota. Somehow, someway, this unit has to improve, and fast, if the Steelers are going to make a run at the postseason. 
  • Defensive line: Like the offensive line, the Steelers have received a recent boost from defensive tackle Montravius Adams, a veteran who signed prior to their Week 13 win over Baltimore. That being said, the unit allowed 205 yard and two touchdowns from Dalvin Cook in last week's loss. With Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu unavailable to play, the Steelers will continue to lean on veterans Cam Heyward and Chris Wormley to right the ship on the defensive line. 
  • Inside linebacker: This has been an Achilles heel for the Steelers all season. Last week, Tomlin gave Marcus Allen and rookie Buddy Johnson more reps at the expense of Joe Schobert. Look for that to continue in the event that Schobert and Devin Bush are not making enough plays early in games. Robert Spillane will also likely see more playing time after Spillane was activated from the COVID-19 list last week. 


How far will Pittsburgh go this season?

With my 10-7 preseason prediction no longer a possibility, I predict a 9-7-1 final record for the 2021 Steelers. Fortunately for the Steelers, that may very well be good enough to secure one of the final spots in the AFC playoffs. 

For this to happen, Pittsburgh will have to go 3-1 during its final four games. If the Steelers can split the next two games against the Titans and Chiefs, that would theoretically keep them alive in the AFC playoff race. Given how well the Chiefs have played over the past six games, the Steelers would significantly improve their playoff odds if they can defeat the Henry-less Titans at home on Sunday. A loss on Sunday would require the Steelers to win out just to have a shot at making the playoffs. 

If they split their next two games, Pittsburgh's playoffs would essentially begin in Week 17 against the visiting Browns on "Monday Night Football". Given Pittsburgh's success on prime time, coupled with the fact that that may very well be Roethlisberger's final home game, it's hard to envision the Steelers losing that game. That being said, Cleveland is a better team now than it was when the two teams first played back in Week 8. The Browns' defense is more than capable of pushing the Steelers' offense around if Pittsburgh comes out flat. Conversely, as they showed in last January's playoff win, the Browns' offense is also more than capable of lighting up the Heinz Field scoreboard. 

If the Steelers beat the Browns, it would likely set up a Week 18 do-or-die showdown against the rival Ravens in Baltimore. With Baltimore's roster compromised by injury, the Steelers have more than a puncher's chance at sweeping the Ravens for a second straight year. But this would largely depend on how well the Steelers' offensive line can play against the Ravens' formidable front. If they can play as well in the fourth quarter of their Week 13 win over Baltimore for an entire game, the Steelers could surely go into Baltimore and leave with a win and a berth in the postseason. 

Despite their 1-3 start and their recent 0-3-1 skid, the Steelers are still very much alive in the AFC playoff race. They are far from a perfect team, but as they have occasionally shown, Pittsburgh is capable of beating anyone in the AFC. Steelers fans are hoping that they can get a chance to prove it when the playoffs begin less than one month from now. 

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