Steelers' playoff hopes hinge on A over B or 2 over 3 or 1A-2B-3C

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Now comes the fun part, the complicated tiebreaker system the National Football League uses to determine which teams with identical records at the end of the season make the playoffs, and which do not.

For those who believe the Steelers, with a 7-7 record and two games left to play, have a snowball's chance in Florida to make the post-season, there is a story there, too.

The road from Heinz Field to the playoffs for the Steelers is a complicated one. Win, and let those who enjoy working the Rubik's Cube that is the NFL tie-breaking system figure it all out. The health care debate might be easier to solve.

Unlike sports such as baseball, where a one-game playoff or even a three-team playoff can break a tie at the end of the regular season, football has no such system. And, with only 16 regular season games compared to baseball's 162, there are infinitely more chances for teams to end up tied for a playoff spot.

The NFL uses a long-standing tiebreaker method that calculates everything that has occurred except corner kicks. For example, No. 7 in the tiebreaking procedure calculates "best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed.''

If teams remain tied as they work through the procedures, it can come to best net points, even best net touchdowns. It says nothing about best net income of each 53-man roster, but don't disregard that as possible for future use.

Having exhausted all steps laid down to break ties, if two or more teams remain in their stalemate, the NFL leaves one final, surefire tiebreaker: A coin flip. It has never come to that, but perhaps the league could make it simpler for all involved and have the coin flip as the first tiebreaker rather than the last.

Yet, as there are so-called draftniks who immerse themselves in the data of college football prospects, so too there are tiebreakerniks. They appear more often than shopping mall Santas this time of year.

That brings us to the question of the day: How can the Steelers make the playoffs?

There is no easy answer. As Steelers tackle Max Starks said, "That's a good question. We'll have to see."

Before we begin, if the Steelers do somehow squeeze into the playoffs, they would not overcome longer odds than did their 1989 team. Twenty years ago, coach Chuck Noll's Steelers needed to win their final three games to finish 9-7 and have, oh, several hundred other scenarios break just right to secure a wildcard playoff spot. Their chances of doing so ranked alongside it snowing in Tampa. They not only ended the regular season on Christmas Eve in Tampa with a win, it snowed there the night before. They beat the Buccaneers and then needed the Vikings to beat the Bengals Monday night, which happened.

The Steelers won their first playoff game in Houston in an overtime upset, and came within a point of winning in Denver against John Elway or they would have played the American Football Conference championship game in Cleveland.

So, there is hope for them this season, however slim it might be. It will not be as simple for them as their dramatic road to the Super Bowl in 2005. They knew if they won their final four games they would make the playoffs, no matter what else happened. That is not the case now.

Let us begin with the easy part. The Steelers must win their final two games, Sunday against Baltimore at Heinz Field and Jan. 3 at Miami, to finish 9-7. Lose one, and they are done; no playoffs for the reigning Super Bowl champs.

The Steelers cannot win the AFC North Division, as they did the past two years, so they must secure one of two wildcard playoff spots available in the AFC to join the four division winners from the conference.

The difficult part comes trying to determine the many other scenarios. There are two potential wildcard playoff teams with better records than the Steelers, Baltimore and Denver at 8-6. Five other teams besides the Steelers stand 7-7.

They all likely will not finish with the same record, and the Steelers can eliminate the Dolphins from the equation when the two play on Jan. 3 in Miami.

If two teams tie for the final playoff spot, that is easy to determine. The first tiebreaker would be their head-to-head result. For example, if the Steelers and Denver tie, the Steelers would get the playoff nod based on their victory at Denver this season. The next tiebreaker would be best record within their division (if the two tied teams are in the same division). That's not good for the Steelers because, if they beat Baltimore Sunday and they both wind up 9-7, Baltimore gets the nod based on its better record against AFC North teams this season. If two teams tie and they are not from the same division and they did not play each other, the nod goes to the team with the best record against AFC opponents. If that, too, is tied, they look at the common games each team played and take the team with the best record against those.

Where it really becomes complicated is when three or more teams are tied for a wildcard playoff spot.

That could be good, or bad, for the Steelers because their 4-6 record in the AFC does not help if it gets to that tiebreaker. Of the 7-7 teams, Jacksonville (6-4) and the New York Jets (5-5) both have better AFC records.

Because there are so many scenarios, and newspaper space and readers' attention are not unlimited, we must turn to logic. So here goes:

We have to assume the Steelers finish the season 9-7 or there would be no reason to do this. That would eliminate Miami and reduce Baltimore to 9-7 at best. The Jets must play both the Colts and Bengals; New York is likely to lose one and miss out. Jacksonville has to finish at New England and at Cleveland and the Jaguars also are likely to lose at least one and be done.

That would leave Tennessee, Houston, Baltimore and Denver. The Steelers would win tiebreakers over both Tennessee and Houston.

So, it could readily come down to Baltimore and Denver. If those two and the Steelers finish tied at 9-7, the Steelers and Ravens would earn the two wildcard playoff spots. In that scenario, the NFL would break the tie between the Steelers and Ravens first, because they reside in the same division. The Ravens would advance, based on their better division record.

Then, they would pit the Ravens against the Broncos and Baltimore would win because the Ravens beat Denver. The NFL would then break the tie between the Steelers and Broncos for the final playoff spot, and Denver would lose out because they lost to the Steelers this season.

Have all that?

Other than that, here are some teams to pull for or against if you want to see the Steelers in the playoffs: Root against the Jets and Jaguars to lose at least one game. This weekend, pull for Philadelphia to beat Denver. Next weekend, pull for Oakland to beat Baltimore.

And remember, it can snow in Florida.


For more on the Steelers, read the new blog, Ed Bouchette On the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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