There are, quite simply, two ways to make the playoffs in the NFL. One is to have one of the two best records of the 12 non-division winners in your conference. The much simpler method is by winning your division.
The Steelers, this season, are on the verge of maybe failing to do either. And when it comes to the latter, they have their intra-division record to blame.
Having the best record in games against your own division almost always leads to a division title. At 2-3 in the AFC North this season, the Steelers failed on that end. And sure enough, division champion Cincinnati is a division-best 4-1 in intra-division games.
Since the NFL adopted its current eight-division format in 2002, there have been 104 division champions (heading into this season, when three divisions have yet to be decided). Of those, 91 had the best record within its division (or at least a tie for it) – that’s 88 percent.
(Quirky sidenotes: included in that, of course, are several “ties” for the best intra-division record… the vast majority of these were when two teams were 4-2. However, four times, there was a tie or at least three teams – and twice there was a four-way tie in which all four of a division’s teams split their six division games: the 2012 NFC South and the 2011 AFC West).
When it comes to the AFC North, the best-intradivisional-record distinction is even more pronounced – if the Bengals beat the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, including this season, 13 of the 14 division champions will have had the outright best record (no ties) in play within the AFC North. (The lone exception being the 2013 Steelers, at 8-8, finishing in second place behind the 11-5 Bengals despite going 4-2 within the division and the Bengals splitting their six games).
Interestingly, the AFC North – other than the lowly Browns – not only has been adept at sending teams to the playoffs over the past decade plus, its teams have also been surprisingly consistent and shown great parity among themselves in doing so (again, tossing out those consistently-awful Browns).
If by some chance the Steelers do slip into the playoffs this season, that would mean that the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers each would have seven appearances each since 2005 (meaning each made it seven of 11 seasons, an impressive 64 percent success rate for all three).
Even if things fail to fall the Steelers’ way Sunday, all that’s needed to even up the “standings” is to go back one extra year – then, since 2004, each of Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh would have seven playoff berths.
Almost equally as, well, equal is the number of division titles each AFC North team has won since 2005 (do I really need to again add the disclaimer about the wretched Cleveland franchise) – four each for the Bengals and Steelers, three for the Ravens.
The Steelers’ two defeats to a poor Ravens team this season might cost them a playoff berth. They certainly cost them a chance at the division title – indirectly, by costing them a chance at having the best intra-division record.
Most seasons, 10-6 is good enough to get into the postseason as a wild card. It’s the Steelers’ bad luck that this season might not be one of them. However, they can only blame themselves for not removing wild-card “luck” from the equation and instead just taking care of business within the division.
LISTEN TO MARK KABOLY, RALPH PAULK AND I HOST THE STEELERS ROUNDTABLE SHOW ON TRIBLIVE RADIO BY CLICKING HERE. CONSIDERING WE ALL WOKE UP IN BALTIMORE ON MONDAY AND MADE IT TO PITTSBURGH BY 2 PM TO DO THE SHOW, IT WASN’T ALL THAT BAD, IF I MUST SAY SO MYSELF.