PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are well positioned for an AFC wild card berth but have little room for slippage. Here are five factors that could leave them at home in January.
Logistics: Losing to Denver and winning the final two games would give the Steelers a 10-win season, which is pretty good considering the loss of several key players to injury and a schedule that included six of the league’s top 10 defenses. But that wouldn’t be enough if the Jets win their final two conference games and the Chiefs keep winning. Kansas City owns any tiebreaker over the Steelers for the sixth spot.
Pass defense: The opposing quarterbacks for the Steelers’ final five games: Matt Hasselbeck, AJ McCarron, Brock Osweiler, Jimmy Clausen, Johnny Manziel. If those last three go wild, the Steelers won’t deserve a playoff spot. Give the Steelers credit for holding Hasselbeck and McCarron to 235.5 passing yards per game and forcing two interceptions apiece. Before that, Pittsburgh was dangerously close to the league’s bottom in yardage allowed. The defense has three things going for it – stopping the run, getting turnovers and sacking quarterbacks. Red zone defense is pretty good, too. Pass defense has been erratic. Three more games to keep those demons tucked away.
Mike Pettine’s job status: If Browns players want to fight for the embattled Pettine, they could inject life into FirstEnergy Stadium with a spirited effort in Week 17. A win over Pittsburgh might just save his job, especially if it buries the Steelers’ playoff chances. Wackier things have happened. It was about 14 months ago when the Browns pounded Pittsburgh 31-10.
Interceptions: In his three losses, Ben Roethlisberger has six interceptions. In six wins, he has four. Catching on? The team is so reliant on his arm that even a 332-yards-per-game average can’t overcome turnovers. If the Steelers keep the ball, they can’t help but move it downfield. They are too good.
Justin Tucker’s leg: Tucker wins games. That’s what he does. The Steelers were a victim of Tucker's 52-yarder to seal an overtime loss in Week 4. The Steelers’ defense should be able to handle Clausen. But if for some reason the game is uncomfortably close, Tucker could have the Steelers belting "Ave Maria" into the offseason.