Saturday, July 20, 2024

2021 NFL playoff picture: How Steelers can make the postseason, plus a prediction for the final five games

Following his team’s 20-19 win over Baltimore, Mike Tomlin had barely settled into his seat before painting the Steelers‘ current mindset as they enter this critical point in their 2021 season. 

“It’s put up and shut up time for us,” Tomlin said. “That’s just the state that we’re in, and we talked about it all week. I appreciate their efforts in terms of putting up, but we’ve got a short week. We’ve got to go to Minnesota. Man, it was much-needed.” 

Sunday’s win provided helped the Steelers remain alive in the AFC North and AFC overall. A third consecutive loss would have dropped Pittsburgh to 13th in the AFC playoff race. Sunday’s win, however, left the Steelers just one spot out of the seventh and final playoff spot with five weeks remaining. At 6-5-1, the Steelers are a half-game back of Cincinnati, who fell to the seventh seed after falling at home on Sunday to the Chargers

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 Steelers would be the first team on the outside looking in on the AFC playoffs if the tournament started today. Four 8-4 teams — New England, Tennessee, Baltimore and Kansas City — represent the top-four seeds in the AFC. Buffalo (7-4), who Pittsburgh defeated back in Week 1, is currently in the fifth spot. Los Angeles (7-5), who defeated the Steelers back in Week 11, are the sixth seed. Cincinnati (7-5) is hanging on to the final playoff spot. 

Pittsburgh is a half-game up on the Colts, who improved to 7-6 after blowing out the Texans on Sunday. The Steelers are also just ahead of Las Vegas (6-6), Cleveland (6-6), Denver (6-6) and Miami (6-7). 

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, Bengals, and Raiders (who defeated the Steelers in Week 2). They would win a tiebreaker against Denver, who they defeated back in Week 5. Pittsburgh would currently hold the tiebreaker over Cleveland, but the two teams will face each other again before the regular season has concluded. 

Pittsburgh owns the fourth-toughest remaining strength of schedule. Fortunately for them, the Browns and Ravens are tied with the NFL‘s toughest remaining schedules. Cincinnati has the fifth-toughest remaining strength of schedule, while Las Vegas, Kansas City, and Indianapolis also have three of the league’s’ 10 toughest remaining strength of schedules. Conversely, the Patriots have the 20th toughest remaining strength of schedule, while the Chargers have the easiest remaining strength of schedule among AFC teams vying for a playoff spot. Los Angeles has the 27th toughest remaining strength of schedule. 

Remaining schedule 

The Steelers don’t have much time to bask in Sunday night’s win. Pittsburgh will quickly travel to Minnesota to face the Vikings on Thursday night. Minnesota fell to 5-7 on Sunday after becoming the Lions‘ first victim of the 2021 season. 

Here’s a look at each of the Steelers’ five remaining opponents. 

  • Week 14: @ Minnesota (Thursday Night Football)

  • Week 15: Tennessee 

  • Week 16: @ Kansas City 

  • Week 17: Cleveland (Monday Night Football)

  • Week 18: @ Baltimore 

The Steelers’ remaining opponents have a collective 35-25 record through 13 weeks. Three of their remaining five opponents would be in the playoffs if the postseason started today. Cleveland and Minnesota are just on the outside looking in as far as the current playoff standings are concerned. 

Minnesota has lost consecutive games after defeating the Packers in Week 11. The Vikings were without running back Dalvin Cook on Sunday, as the former Pro Bowler is dealing with a shoulder injury. Cook is not expected to suit up for Thursday night’s game. 

Speaking of running back injuries, the Titans haven’t been the same after losing Derrick Henry after the two-time defending rushing champion suffered a serious foot injury. The Titans are 6-2 with Henry but just 2-2 without their star running back in the starting lineup this season. Tennessee’s offense scored just 13 points in each of their last two games while its defense surrendered 36 points during their Week 12 loss to New England. The Titans are coming off of a bye, so they should be fresher than most teams heading into the home stretch of the regular season. 

The Chiefs have found their stride after winning just three of their first seven games. Kansas City has won five straight games following Sunday night’s convincing win over Denver. A big reason for the Chiefs’ turnaround has been the play of their defense, which has allowed just 56 points during their five-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 back 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 received a much-needed bye week this past Sunday. While the Browns’ defense, led by pass rusher Myles Garrett, in on the verge of becoming a top-notch unit, Cleveland’s offense has taken steps backwards this season. Most of the Browns’ offensive struggles can be attributed to injuries to quarterback Baker Mayfield and running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Chubb and Hunt have missed a combined six games this season. And while Mayfield has missed just one game, the Browns’ quarterback has played through significant pain on a weekly basis. 

As evidenced on Sunday night, the Ravens are a good team but nonetheless are a team with flaws. Baltimore’s 32nd-ranked pass defense was exploited by Ben Roethlisberger during the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game. Baltimore’s offense, which relies far too much on Lamar Jackson, failed to score 20 points for a fourth consecutive game.  

Areas of improvement 

  • Offensive line: Pittsburgh has found added depth on their offensive line in the form of John Leglue, who played well in relief of B.J. Finney on Sunday night. With Leglue at left guard, the Steelers’ offensive line had their best game in over a month while helping Pittsburgh control the ball for over 10 minutes in the fourth quarter. The Steelers will need to continue to have similar contributions from their line if Pittsburgh is going to make a serous run at the playoffs. 

  • Defensive line: Like the offensive line, the Steelers received a boost from defensive tackle Montravius Adams, a veteran defensive tackle who signed with Pittsburgh last week. With Stephon Tuitt’s status for the rest of the season still unknown, the Steelers will continue to need to receive solid play from Adams, Cam Heyward and Chris Wormley, who on Sunday night had 2.5 sacks against his former team. 

  • Inside linebacker: Unlike their defensive and offensive lines, the Steelers do not currently have an answer for this part of their defense. Devin Bush was a non-factor on Sunday night, while Joe Schobert continues to be a solid yet unspectacular player. This unit simply needs to not lose games for the Steelers. 

Prediction 

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 3-2 during its final five games. When looking at their remaining opponents, the Steelers’ “easiest” game is this Thursday, although a road game on a short week is anything but. A win on Thursday night is critical for the Steelers, who with a win would be 7-5-1 entering a mini bye week. 

From there, Pittsburgh would have to split their remaining four games against Tennessee, Kansas City, Cleveland and Baltimore. If they split their two games against Baltimore and Cleveland, the Steelers would need to split their two remaining non-divisional games. While they could upset the Chiefs a day after Christmas, Pittsburgh’s upcoming home game against Tennessee is a much more winnable game. 

As it relates to home field, the Steelers have two more games inside Heinz Field. If they take care of both, they would only need to win one of their remaining three home games. The Steelers are 4-2-1 at home this season and just 2-3 in games outside of Pittsburgh. 

Despite their 1-3 start and their recent 0-2-1 skid, the Steelers are still very much alive in the AFC playoff race. They are far from a perfect team, but as they showed on Sunday night, Pittsburgh is capable of beating anyone in the AFC. Their fans are hoping that they can get a chance to prove it when the playoffs begin five weeks from now. 

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