Pittsburgh improved to 7-5 in Week 13, a record that puts the team No. 6 in the conference standings, the second wild card behind Buffalo (9-3). The Steelers hold the conference record tiebreaker by a game over the 7-5 Titans. The Raiders and Colts, both staring at .500, are fading fast behind them. The Browns at 5-7 are now a full two games behind. The Steelers have now gone 6-3 against AFC opponents, only losing to the Browns, Ravens and Patriots.
The Steelers' remaining schedule is a mixed bag of ease and difficulty. Week 14 brings a road trip to play the NFC's Cardinals (3-8-1), and in Week 16, the Steelers will be on the road against the Jets (4-8), who have been bad against AFC opponents all season. The tough games are the Bills at home in Week 15 and the Ravens (10-1) on the road in Week 17.
Given the Ravens have a three-game division lead with four games left to play, the Steelers won't be winning the AFC North. But the head-to-head shot at the Bills could help push them to a No. 5 seed. Around the game in Pittsburgh, the Bills have to play at the Ravens next week and at the Patriots in Week 16 before hosting the Jets in Week 17. There's enough there for the Steelers to make up the two games in the standings.
NFL playoff picture
(Updated AFC standings through Sunday's early afternoon games)
In the hunt: Titans (7-5), Raiders (6-5), Colts (6-6), Browns (5-7)
If they were to reach the No. 5 seed in the AFC, the Steelers likely would face the champion of the weak AFC South instead of the AFC West-leading Chiefs in a wild-card road game. Kansas City is a much tougher place to play in January than Houston, Indianapolis or Tennessee.
For now, the Steelers would be thrilled to get in as the No. 6 seed given their all their offensive injury issues. One thing they should want is for the Texans (7-4) to pull away and win the AFC South, because they are the one team that can still win the conference tiebreaker ahead of the Steelers, at 6-2 in AFC play going into Sunday night's Patriots game.
Behind the Texans, though, the Steelers are in great shape with their tiebreaker over the Colts (6-6), who they beat in Week 9. So that leaves the tight race of Pittsburgh vs. Tennessee.
The Titans' remaining opponents are the Raiders on the road in Week 14, the Texans twice in Weeks 15 and 17, and the Saints (10-2) at home in Week 16. That's two more away games for a team that has been better in Nashville. The New Orleans matchup for Tennessee is a wash with Pittsburgh having to face Baltimore. When you factor in the other three games for the Titans vs. what else the Steelers have, it's also advantage, Steelers.
Coach Mike Tomlin has done a good job adjusting with his team and personnel to get the Steelers to win more with running game and defense. They're into playing ugly battles of attrition, which is working well for the mentality and physicality of Pittsburgh's players.
The Steelers, in other words, have rediscovered their familiar winning identity at the right time. Above all the playoff permutations left, they are playing well with great momentum toward the postseason.
Going into the final month of the season, that's the greatest thing working in their AFC wild-card favor.