As we enter Week 14 of the NFL season, the battle for the top seed in the AFC is far from over. Because there’s only one bye in each conference, the one seed has never been more coveted. And, thanks to the Pittsburgh Steelers undefeated streak ending, the race is just beginning. As it stands right now, the Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs are the two frontrunners. But the Buffalo Bills sit only two games back and have a chance to earn a tiebreaker on SNF against the Steelers. The Steelers and Chiefs are 11-1, while the Bills are 9-2. In this piece, we’ll try and answer the question: will the Steelers be the top seed in the AFC?
Will The Pittsburgh Steelers Be The Top Seed In The AFC?
Daunting Remaining Schedule
Despite suffering their first loss of the season Monday night, the Steelers are still the top seed in the AFC. Perhaps the biggest concern for them will be their remaining schedule. The Bills game will be a huge test on all sides of the ball. The last few weeks have uncovered weaknesses of the Steelers, especially on offense.
In their last six games, they’ve averaged a miserable 55.5 yards on the ground per game. This has caused them to lean heavily on Ben Roethlisberger, as he’s thrown over 46 passes each of the past four weeks. Also, the Steelers now lead the NFL in drops and have had 15 in the last two weeks. The offensive formula Pittsburgh used in the first half of the season simply hasn’t worked the same in the second half. The Bills are an opportunistic team and will pounce if the Steelers give them the chance.
After the Bills game, they face the Cincinnati Bengals on the road. This should provide a game to get right as the Bengals haven’t been the same since losing Joe Burrow for the year. But the remaining two games against the Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns will decide their fate.
Historically, the Colts have lost the last six to Pittsburgh, but this Colts team is built differently. Their makeup is similar to the Browns offensively. They’re both run-heavy teams with stout offensive lines and quarterbacks who’ve played similarly in 2020. Despite this schedule, there’s a chance the Steelers win all four games and finish 15-1. But the offensive issues aren’t the only ones this team needs to fix for them to be the top seed in the AFC and to get that 15-1 record.
Injury Bug Striking At The Worse Time
On the defensive side of the ball, injuries have started to take effect. After signal-caller Devin Bush tore his ACL in Week 6, Robert Spillane has done a terrific job filling in for him. But Spillane suffered a knee injury last week and is going to miss some time.
Additionally, the loss of Bud Dupree for the season is going to be hard to replace. Dupree’s replacement, Alex Highsmith, has a bright career ahead, but won’t be the same caliber player that Dupree was in just his rookie year. Star cornerback Joe Haden has a concussion and won’t be able to play against the Bills and their stacked receiver core. Finally, Chris Boswell missed Monday’s game, and it cost them. Lacking confidence in replacement Matthew Wright, the Steelers elected to go for fourth and one from Washington’s 28 near the end of the fourth quarter instead of a field goal that would’ve given them the lead.
Injuries are a part of the NFL and no team is ever immune. The Steelers got off lucky in the first half of the season, suffering little serious injures. The cliche “Next man up” mentality was working, and they were able to make up for what they lost. That mentality will be heavily put to the test over the next four weeks. Avery Williamson, Ola Adeniyi, and Cameron Sutton will need to be contributors whenever they see the field too. But if the Steelers can get Spillane back, and avoid any more serious injuries, they can still finish the top seed in the AFC.
Looking At The Competition
What’s scarier than the Steelers’ remaining schedule is the Chiefs breathing down their necks. The Chiefs have very tough games the next two weeks, against the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints. Those defenses will be counted on to stop Patrick Mahomes, and give the offense time to work the ball down the field and win the time of possession battle.
Their final two games against the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Chargers project to be victories. They’ll likely finish anywhere from 13-3 to 15-1, but division wins will decide the tiebreaker. The Steelers are 4-0 in that category, and the Chiefs are 4-1. Week 17 against the Browns might very well be a must-win for that bye.
But the Bills are also undefeated in their division (4-0) and have a chance to beat the Steelers who’re injury-ridden currently. That’d put them at 10 wins, and one back of Pittsburgh. But the remaining schedule for the Bills is challenging in itself. Their last two games come against the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins who’ll be competing for wild card births. Their performance against the Steelers will show just how much of a contender they really are or not.
Verdict On The Top Seed In The AFC
The bottom line is that the competition for the first-round bye will be crazy to track. All three teams need that crucial week of rest, but the Steelers need it more than the others. The Steelers’ bye week was back in Week 4, while the Bills’ was Week 11, and the Chiefs had theirs Week 10.
If the Steelers want the top seed in the AFC, they’ll need to rediscover their rushing attack, get and stay healthy, evolve their passing game, and get plays from young role players. The run defense which was suffocating earlier this year needs to make sure it doesn’t slip anymore either. Otherwise, teams like the Colts and Browns will make them pay. The Chiefs have the easier schedule and path currently, but the Steelers can still control their own destiny by being better than they’ve been the second half of the season. After all, they’re the team most built to handle this adversity.