Playoff Scenarios: Who the Steelers could play in the AFC Wild Card Round

The Pittsburgh Steelers are the 2020 AFC North Champions. By defeating the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, the Steelers won their division championship which guarantees them one of the top four playoff seeds and a home playoff game.

Heading into Week 17, the Steelers will finish either the 2nd or 3rd position in the American Football Conference. While the Steelers finishing as the #3 seed is much more likely, their opponent for the Wild Card Round could actually be any one of five teams depending on the final week of the season.

Before diving into the scenarios for the Steelers opponents, let’s take a look at what will determine if the Steelers are the #2 or #3 seed in the AFC.


The Steelers Seed

The Steelers will either finish in the 2nd or 3rd seed in the AFC based on the outcome of both their game with the Cleveland Browns and the game between the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills. The Steelers cannot catch the Kansas City Chiefs for the number one seed, nor can they be caught by either the Tennessee Titans or Indianapolis Colts as the two teams still fighting to win the AFC South. The only team in contention with the Steelers for seeding purposes is the Buffalo Bills. Since the Steelers lost to the Bills in the head-to-head matchup, the Steelers would have to finish one game ahead in order to gain the #2 seed.

Here is the exact scenario for the Steelers to gain the number two seed:

Steelers WIN in Week 17 and Bills LOSE to the Dolphins

With no first-round bye going to the 2nd seed beginning in 2020, the Steelers are more interested in their players being at full health going into Wild Card Weekend then they would be in gaining the 2nd seed. Since playing for a specific matchup would be very complicated (as will be explained below), the only advantage coming out of having the 2nd seed would be hosting a Divisional Round game should the team make it past the Wild Card Round. While that home-field advantage would be helpful when the time comes, the greater concern is getting through each round of the postseason. With the Steelers needing a win AND to get help, the decision to sit Ben Roethlisberger became much easier.


The Wild Card Seeds

Going into the final week of the 2020 NFL season, there are five teams in the AFC with a record of 10-5 and only four of them can qualify for the playoffs. Even with an extra team making the postseason from each conference, the AFC will have a 10—and possibly 11—win team NOT qualify. Here are the current standings of those five teams in the AFC entering Week 17.

4. Tennessee Titans

5. Miami Dolphins
6. Baltimore Ravens
7. Cleveland Browns
8. Indianapolis Colts

Currently the Tennessee Titans are in line to win the AFC South as they hold the fourth seed. Obviously, the only team which could move into that seed would be the Indianapolis Colts if they could catch the Titans. In order for Indy to overtake the spot, they would have to defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars and have the Tennessee Titans lose to the Houston Texans. Unless both of those things occur, the Tennessee Titans will have the #4 seed.

When it comes to the three Wild Card teams, where they stand now is the order in which they would finish based on tiebreakers. From all the different scenarios I have tested, these tiebreakers do not appear to change based on any other outcomes in Week 17. So the ultimate seeding will come based on where teams stand now. Any team that were to lose in Week 17 gets bumped from their position to 8th spot at the bottom of the list. If multiple of these teams were to lose in Week 17, where they would fall into place is based on where they stand now.

For example, The Miami Dolphins are currently the #5 seed. Should they lose to the Buffalo Bills in Week 17, they would bump it to the bottom of the list in the 8th position. But if any other of these teams were to also lose, they would then fall below the Dolphins and Miami would climb up a spot.

If Colts were to win and the Titans were to lose, Tennessee holds the tiebreaker among most of the 5 teams (not Cleveland in a head-to-head) and would be ranked ahead of most other teams on the list who also lost in Week 17. So the only way the Titans fail to make the playoffs is if they are the only team of the 5 teams to lose their last game other than the Browns.


Likely Scenarios

First, let’s look at the odds of each of the remaining teams to finish in each seed according to Josh Rowntree of KDKA (NOTE: these odds were calculated before the announcement of Ben Roethlisberger not playing this week):

To total but those percentages, here are the odds for each remaining team to make the playoffs:

Titans: 92.1%
Ravens: 88.8%
Colts: 83.5%
Dolphins: 77.6%
Browns: 57.9%

The most interesting thing from these totals is the Dolphins being on the lower end of the odds as the current #5 seed. The only way the Dolphins don’t make the playoffs is if they lose to the Bills and ALL four other teams (Titans, Ravens, Browns, and Colts) all win. Also, the only way the Browns miss the playoffs is if they lose to the Steelers and the Colts beat the Jaguars.

If all five teams who are 10–5 entering Week 17 manage to win their games, which means the Steelers and Bills would both lose, then the Steelers would face the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card Round. Currently the Ravens, Browns, Titans, and Colts are all favored to win on Sunday with the Dolphins and Bills currently Even Odds according to oddsshark.com.

If all teams who are currently favored when their games and the Bills defeat the Dolphins, then the Steelers would face the Browns again in the Wild Card Round, this time at Heinz Field.

Here are the scenarios for the Steelers to face each remaining team based on the outcomes on Sunday:

Steelers as the #2 seed (PIT over CLE, MIA over BUF):

To face MIA: None
To face BAL: IND over JAX; CIN over BAL (TEN vs HOU is irrelevant)
To face IND: TEN over HOU; IND over JAX; BAL over CIN
To face TEN: None
To face CLE: TEN over HOU; JAX over IND; BAL over CIN

Steelers as the #3 seed (BUF over MIA):

If PIT defeats CLE…
To face MIA: TEN over HOU; One win and one loss by IND and BAL
To face BAL: TEN over HOU; JAX over IND; CIN over BAL
To face IND: TEN over HOU; IND over JAX; BAL over CIN
To face TEN: HOU over TEN; IND over JAX; BAL over CIN
To face CLE: None (CLE can only get the #7 seed)

Steelers as the #3 seed (BUF over MIA):

If CLE defeats PIT…
To face MIA: JAX over IND; CIN over BAL
To face BAL: None
To face IND: TEN over HOU; IND over JAX; CIN over BAL
To face TEN: HOU over TEN; IND over JAX; CIN over BAL
To face CLE: BAL def CIN

Steelers as the #3 seed (MIA over BUF & CLE over PIT):

To face MIA: None
To face BAL: BAL over CIN
To face IND: None
To face TEN: None
To face CLE: CIN def BAL


Confused yet? All of these things will be unfolding on Sunday beginning at 1 PM with the Steelers at Browns, Ravens at Bengals, and Dolphins at Bills and will continue at 4:25 PM with the Titans at Texans and Jaguars at Colts. Stay tuned to BTSC as we will be running an updated playoff matchup article during the games giving the current scenarios as they unfold until the Steelers’ Wild Card opponent is set.

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