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MIRZA ZUKIC: Today an absolute must win

by on December 08, 2013 2:00 AM

As the Pittsburgh Steelers enter the final month of the season, there aren’t many games they can afford to lose.

Anything less than a 3-1 record in December, and the Steelers will be sitting at home watching the playoffs on TV in January. There are others who believe a 4-0 mark in December is a must if they are to qualify for the postseason, but I’m not convinced of that. With the way the AFC has been this season, an 8-8 record might very well be good enough to snatch the final playoff spot.

Bleak as it might seem, the Steelers are in a good position to steal that final spot, but not unless they can start their December schedule with a win today.

The Steelers are one of six teams sitting at 5-7, and only today’s opponent, the Dolphins (6-6), and the Baltimore Ravens (6-6) are ahead of them for the sixth and final playoff spot.

Three teams sit at 4-8 and would have to go 4-0 just to be in the playoff conversation, but do you really see the Raiders, Browns or Bills doing that? Me neither. So let’s eliminate them from the playoff chatter.

That leaves the four 5-7 teams and the two 6-6 teams competing for the last AFC postseason spot.

And I think chances are good the Steelers could pick off the two 6-6 teams and move ahead of them by the end of the month.

For starters, a win over the overachieving Dolphins today would give the Steelers the tiebreaker should those two teams finish tied at the end of the season.

After leaving Pittsburgh today, the Dolphins end the season with three AFC East games. They welcome the Patriots next week followed by games against the Bills and Jets. An 8-8 mark seems to be in the Dolphins’ future.

As far as Baltimore is concerned, the Ravens have a murderous schedule over the final month of the season after the lowly Minnesota Vikings leave town today.

They play two of their final three games on the road, and their three remaining opponents after today have a combined schedule of 24-12. They have a game at Detroit (7-5) next Monday night, followed by their home finale against New England (9-3) a week later and a season-ending visit to Cincinnati (8-4).

Let’s assume for the moment the Ravens will beat the Vikings today and improve to 7-6. With as inconsistent as the Ravens have been this season, it’s hard to fathom them going 2-1 or 3-0 over the final three weeks. Actually, against that schedule, even 1-2 might be considered a success.

That would leave the defending Super Bowl champions looking at an 8-8 record.

However, the Ravens do have an edge on Pittsburgh by virtue of a better conference record. At the moment, the Ravens are 6-4 against the AFC with two conference games to play. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is 4-5 with three conference games remaining.

Pittsburgh has the much easier schedule, with games against spiraling Green Bay and Cleveland to end the season after today’s game and next Sunday night’s clash with the division-leading Bengals.

Also in their favor is that the Steelers play three of their final four games at Heinz Field.

Even when they were at their worst in

September, the Steelers played respectably in losing to the Bengals, who hardly appear unbeatable.

The best-case scenario for the Steelers would be that the Ravens lose their two remaining AFC games.

That, coupled with wins against the Dolphins and the Bengals next week, would put the Steelers in a great position to control their own destiny and assure themselves of a playoff berth as a Christmas present.

But none of it will be attainable unless they start the month on a good note with a win today.



Mirza Zukic is a sports writer that primarily covers the Pittsburgh Steelers and is the Gazette's track and field beat writer.
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