The rest of the AFC can’t be blamed for fearing the Steelers right now.
The Steelers (9-5) defeated the Broncos 34-27 Sunday at Pittsburgh, coming back from a 17-point deficit against the NFL’s top-ranked defense against the run, against the pass and overall.
All they have to do to make the playoffs is finish the season with wins at Baltimore (4-9) and Cleveland (10-3). They also can get in with a win in one of those games and a Jets loss at home to New England or at Buffalo.
If the Steelers get into the playoffs, the popular narrative is that they’re a team no one wants to play. They’ve scored 30 or more points in a team-record six straight games and became the first team to score 30 against the Broncos this season.
Antonio Brown was at the heart of the Steelers’ comeback on Sunday. He caught nine of his 16 passes, two for touchdowns, in the second half.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) December 21, 2015
Double-teaming Brown probably isn’t the best idea for opposing defenses. Martavis Bryant has caught 26 passes in the last four games and Markus Wheaton has caught 22 in the last four games after catching 16 in the first 10 games.
DeAngelo Williams, the AFC’s fifth-leading rusher, has helped the Steelers weather the loss of Le’Veon Bell. Losing Bell in the 2014 regular-season finale is pretty much why they made a quick exit in the playoffs.
For the Steelers to do any damage in this year’s playoffs, their defense will have to play like it did in the second half Sunday. For the second time in three games, the Steelers didn’t allow a point after halftime.
The Steelers allow 279.1 passing yards per game. Only the Giants have a worse pass defense. However, the Steelers are tied for fourth with the Panthers with 40 sacks and allow only 20.5 points per game, which puts them just outside the top 10.
The #Steelers D hit the 40 sack mark w/ 2 today and have 15 INTs, most in both categories for the team since 2010 (48 sacks and 21 INT)
— Ken Laird (@Ken_Laird) December 21, 2015
Sunday’s victory was the Steelers’ third over a division leader this season. Before they’re anointed as the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, however, there still are a couple of hurdles in their way.
The Steelers have never beaten Tom Brady at New England. Sure, they might have done that if they had bothered to cover Rob Gronkowski or if Josh Scobee didn’t miss two field goals in the season opener. But since 2011, the Patriots have not missed the Super Bowl when Gronkowski has been healthy in the playoffs.
When the Steelers reached the Super Bowl in 2010, they didn’t have to play the top-seeded Patriots because the Jets did their dirty work in the divisional round. Even if they circumvent the Patriots in the playoffs this year, the Steelers’ offense might have to do what it did Sunday at Denver.
Then there’s the Bengals, who have their own playoff wall to overcome. If the Steelers go to Cincinnati, especially if Andy Dalton is back, Marcus Gilbert’s bulletin-board material might just be the spark the Bengals need to win their first playoff game in a quarter century.
Marcus Gilbert: All I want for Christmas is a playoff game against the Bengals https://t.co/eyqsUkJQ1e
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) December 14, 2015
The Chiefs (9-5) also don’t figure to be an easy out in the playoffs. Somehow they’ve managed to win eight games in a row under the radar. They’re not getting the “team no one wants to play” accolades that the Steelers are getting.
The Steelers are obviously heading in the right direction. They haven’t lost a game in December since 2013. December is a good month to not lose games in the NFL, but as strange as this sounds, it’s only December.
This is a franchise that has won six Super Bowls. What happens in January is what matters most.