PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' playoff hopes didn’t die on a cold night in Baltimore. A 22-20 loss to the Ravens last Thursday did leave the Steelers no margin for error if they want to join the 1992 Chargers as the only teams in NFL history to make the playoffs after an 0-4 start.
ESPN’s playoff machine offers all kinds of postseason permutations based on different criteria, but for the Steelers, the only realistic way they play beyond December is if they win their final four games, starting Sunday against the visiting Dolphins.
Here are 10 things that have to happen for the Steelers to win their final four games and make the playoffs.
Keep Big Ben healthy: As much of a beating Ben Roethlisberger has taken, he is on track to play in every game, something he has done only one time in his career (2008). Roethlisberger is playing well enough to carry the team, and, as usual, he is the player the Steelers can least afford to lose.
Overcome another offensive line injury: The Steelers can’t expect to be as fortunate as they were when Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey went down in the opener with a season-ending injury and Fernando Velasco stabilized the center position not long after signing with the team. Cody Wallace is next up with Velasco (foot) lost for the season, and he cannot be a liability or the line’s play will again become an issue despite the strides it made this season.
Get LaMarr Woodley back on the field: The highest-paid defensive player in team history has missed the past three games because of a nagging calf injury, and it is imperative that the Steelers get their two best pass-rushers playing together. Jason Worilds is in the midst of a breakout season and having Woodley opposite him for the majority of snaps would go a long way toward the Steelers putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Win the turnover battle, particularly against the Bengals and Packers: The Steelers are plus-eight in turnover differential in their five wins and minus-12 in seven losses. Their two toughest remaining opponents, at least on paper, are the Bengals, who visit Heinz Field on Dec. 15, and the Packers, assuming Aaron Rodgers has returned from a broken collarbone for a Dec. 22 game at Lambeau Field. The Steelers cannot give either team extra possessions or short fields.
Le’Veon Bell stays on track: A brutal goal-line collision with Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith left Bell concussed, and the Steelers have to hope there aren’t any lingering physical and psychological effects from that injury. The Steelers have leaned heavily on Bell since the fourth game of the season, and he has given them a credible running game while also helping out in the passing game.
Get some help with their archrival: The Ravens are a game ahead of the Steelers, and they have a better conference record. Their standing is all the reason more why a 3-1 finish and 8-8 overall record probably won’t be enough for the Steelers to finish ahead of the Ravens for the second wild-card berth in the AFC. The Ravens finish with a home game against the Patriots, sandwiched by trips to Detroit and Cincinnati, so a 2-2 finish for Baltimore is certainly within reason.
Stop the run: The Steelers have given up an average of 84.4 rushing yards in their five wins and an average of 137 rushing yards in their seven losses. The good thing for the Steelers is the only likely 1,000-yard rusher they will face down the stretch is Packers rookie Eddie Lacy.
Continue to use the no-huddle offense extensively: The Steelers might well be 6-6 with a season sweep of the Ravens had they not waited until the second half to use the no-huddle extensively last Thursday. Three of four games at home will make it easier to run the up-tempo attack, but Wallace won’t have nearly the command of the offense as Velasco did given how little he has played and the limited practice repetitions he has gotten with the first-team offense.
Defensive backs holds up: Nowhere has the Steelers' defense shown its age more than in the secondary. They have given up seven pass plays of at least 50 yards this season, and 12th-year cornerback Ike Taylor has struggled to shadow opponents’ No. 1 receiver in the past three games. The Steelers don’t need their defensive backs to be opportunistic down the stretch as much as they need them to keep pass plays in front of them and force teams to try to score on extended drives.
Stay focused on task at hand: This is probably the easiest for the Steelers to accomplish since the tunnel vision they embraced after starting 0-4 and 2-6 helped them dig out of both holes. They haven’t looked ahead or at what is going on around them, and the veterans in the locker room have really cemented that mindset. There is no need for the Steelers to get away from that -- and I don’t expect them to -- as they try to win their final four games.