At 4-6, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a strange sort of enigma. After they started the season 0-4 and a great majority of their fan base was prepared to turn their backs on the team, they have scrambled to win four of their last six games and suddenly everyone is filled with hope. Suddenly, there are “experts” talking about the Steelers possibly climbing back and taking the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC.
All of this talk leads to the following question: are the Steelers contenders or pretenders?
Let me first say that I am not referring to the Steelers as Super Bowl contenders when they have a losing record and are still an extremely inconsistent football team. I am merely talking about the Steelers as a team that might actually contend for a playoff spot, or even for the AFC North division crown.
In terms of the AFC North, the Steelers have more than merely an uphill climb to regain relevance. The Steelers are two games back in the loss column to the Cincinnati Bengals and need to play near flawless football for the remainder of the season to make the division race interesting.
One thing the Steelers have going for them is that of their six remaining games, four are against AFC North opponents: two against the Cleveland Browns, one at the Baltimore Ravens and another at home against the Bengals. Those four games could certainly make the race to the finish line interesting, but if you ask me, the Steelers’ playoff hopes hang within the wild card, not the division title.
Looking at the AFC playoff picture, you see a stronger chance for the Steelers to contend for a playoff spot if they can extend their current success for the duration of the season.
Assuming that the four AFC division leaders will represent the top four teams in the AFC playoff bracket, that leaves the fifth spot in the AFC to either the Kansas City Chiefs or the Denver Broncos after one of them falls to second place in the AFC West. The sixth and final playoff spot would then be open for a slew of teams.
Currently, you have the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets sitting in the fifth playoff spot at 5-5 records. After the Jets and Dolphins, you have a logjam of teams at 4-6, and the Steelers find themselves right in the thick of things. Simply, if the Steelers expect to get in, they need some help.
One benefit the Steelers do have is that they have already defeated the Jets this season, which would give the Steelers the tiebreaker, and they will be playing the Dolphins at Heinz Field in a couple weeks.
Even if the Steelers defeat the Dolphins, they will still need help in separating themselves from a pack of 4-6 teams that have the advantage over the Steelers in terms of tiebreakers. Although it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities that the Steelers make the playoffs as the sixth and final team, it is simply too early to gauge whether or not they will get the help needed to find themselves in a position to make the playoffs; most importantly, it is too early to know if the Steelers have turned the corner as a team and will show more consistency down the stretch throughout the final six games.
Back to that initial question, are the Steelers contenders or pretenders? I feel that the Steelers will be able to allow one loss and still be able to be in the discussion for the playoffs. As long as they are in the discussion, they are contenders.
Jeff Hartman covers the Pittsburgh Steelers for RantSports.com and also contributes for the Penguins and Pirates. Follow him on Twitter @BnGBlitz