The Steelers well awaited bye week has come and gone and the players are all headed back to Pittsburgh to get ready for the final sprint to the finish line and hopefully another playoff birth. They currently exit the bye with a 7-3 record and sit in second place in the AFC North behind the Baltimore Ravens because of the two losses to them this season. Were the season to end tonight, the Steelers would be the 5th seed in the AFC and would face the Oakland Raiders on the road in one of the two Wild Card games. Thankfully the season is far from over with 6 games remaining on the 2011 schedule and here is a preview of those games.
Week 12 – Kansas City Chiefs – Arrowhead Stadium – Sun, 11/27 at 8:20 PM EST
The Chiefs will play tonight on Monday Night Football against the New England Patriots and former University of Pittsburgh product Tyler Palko will make his first NFL start at quarterback in place of the injured Matt Cassel. The Chiefs then have a short week to turn around and host the Steelers coming off their week 11 bye. While it is still up in the air if outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley or second year wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders will be recovered enough from their injuries to play Sunday night, the matchup on paper suggest they shouldn\’t need either of them. We will get our first look at how the fractured thumb on the throwing hand of Ben Roethlisberger affects him in this game, but it is not something that he has not played through before. The Steelers still should remember what happened during their last trip to Kansas City back in November of 2009 as that was a game they should have easily won despite being without safety Troy Polamalu. This should be an easy win.
Week 13 – Cincinnati Bengals – Heinz Field – Sun, 12/04 at 1:00 PM EST
One thing is for sure after watching the Bengals game yesterday against the Ravens and that is the fact that the Bengals are a much improved team. Had a few calls gone their way at the end, they might have pulled off a great comeback with a rookie quarterback and minus the services of their great rookie wide receiver A.J. Green. The Bengals defense may have taken a small step backwards against the Ravens, but they still remain one of the better units in the league through the first 10 weeks. The Bengals hung tough with the Steelers back in week 10 and the only small advantage the Steelers will have in the second meeting with them is home field advantage this time around. Andy Dalton has shown quite a bit of moxie and has proven he can lead a team that is behind on the scoreboard. The Steelers will need to bring their A-game to complete the sweep and this is by no means a slam dunk win.
Week 14 – Cleveland Browns – Heinz Field – Thu, 12/08 at 8:20 PM EST
Week 14 brings a short week for the Steelers as they must quickly turnaround from the game against the Bengals to host the Browns for their first of two meetings. Cleveland has not been good offense through their first 10 games and they have been without the services of running back Peyton Hillis, who could be back by the time this game rolls around. Joshua Cribbs always seems to be some sort of thorn in the side of the Steelers when these two teams play, especially on special teams, and the Browns secondary has played well despite their 4-6 record. This is a game the Steelers should win, but they certainly should not take the Browns lightly who would love more than anything to put a dent into the Steelers playoff chances.
Week 15 – San Francisco 49ers – Candlestick Park – Mon, 12/19 at 8:30 PM EST
The Steelers get a mini bye week after the Thursday night game against the Browns and they will need it to prepare for their trip out west to play the 49ers on Monday Night Football. The 49ers currently sit at 9-1 as they prepare to take on the Ravens Thanksgiving night in Baltimore and the Harbaugh Bowl will be a good measuring stick to see just how good the 49ers actually are. A win Thursday night and they can clinch the NFC West with a win and Seattle Seahawks loss on Sunday. Merely clinching the division will not mean the 49ers will take their foot off the gas pedal however as they still have the Green Bay Packers to contend with for home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Depending on how the Steelers fare against the Chiefs, Bengals and Browns, this game could turn into a must win of sorts and the 49ers will certainly be no pushover.
Week 16 – St. Louis Rams – Heinz Field – Sat, 12/24 at 1:00 PM EST
Week 16 brings the Steelers another quick turn around week as they are scheduled to host the Rams the Saturday following the Monday night game with the 49ers. This far out it seems certain that at best the Steelers could have a Wild Card spot locked up at this point and depending on how things have played out around the AFC North, the division could very much still be up for grabs. The Rams are currently 2-8 right now and almost certain not to make the playoffs. Heading into week 12 the Rams have scored the fewest points in the league as quarterback Sam Bradford has struggled in his sophomore season. This is a game the Steelers certainly should not lose and hopefully it will give them an opportunity to start resting a few starters in the second half, if not the whole game.
Week 17 – Cleveland Browns – Cleveland Browns Stadium – Sun, 01/01 at 1:00 PM EST
Another regular season ends with a trip to Cleveland and hopefully the Steelers will be using this game as a small tune-up for the playoffs. The AFC North could still be on the line, as well as a first round bye, so it could still have significance. The Browns season should be well over by that point, so they will certainly be laying it all on the line with a no holds barred type attitude.
Final 6 Games Summary – The Steelers games against the Bengals and the 49ers are both tough tilts and it is certainly fathomable that they could lose at least one if not both of those games. At the very worst I see them getting through the final 6 games with a 4-2 record which would see them finish with an 11-5 record. That should be enough for a Wild Card spot, but not the AFC North crown. The Ravens control their own fate as a far as the division is concerned, but still have to play the 49ers, Bengals and Chargers. Judging by their Jekyll and Hyde performances this year, anything is possible, but the Steelers must finish with a better record than them if they want to win the division. While running the table is not out of the question, a 5-1 record to finish the season is much more realistic. Should they somehow lose to both the Bengals and the 49ers they would have to almost certainly win the final two games against the Rams and the Browns to make it as a Wild Card. If not, they could likely need help getting in the dance.