Why The Dramatic Steelers-Chargers Finish Will Settle A Playoff Berth

“This drive is for a playoff berth”. That was the thought going through my mind as Michael Vick led the Pittsburgh Steelers on their last ditch-effort to beat the San Diego Chargers on the road Monday Night. Were the stakes really that high? Did Le’Veon Bell’s last-play touchdown—where the ball crossed the plane of the goal-line just a hair before his knee hit the ground to secure a 24-20 win—mean the difference between whether the Steelers or Chargers will get in the postseason? I think it did.

Let’s safely assume that Denver, New England, Cincinnati and Indianapolis will all win their divisions. Maybe the Bengals will come back to the pack and maybe someone in the hideous AFC South will yet prove capable of challenging the Colts, but penciling those four teams in as division champs is the safest bet.

Then let’s say the AFC East runner-up—either the Buffalo Bills or New York Jets will grab one wild-card spot. Who else is left for the final berth?

*Kansas City and Baltimore have the talent and there’s still time for each to get back in the race, but both are in a 1-4 hole and each has suffered a devastating injury, the Chiefs losing Jamaal Charles and the Ravens being without Terrell Suggs.

*Cleveland, Oakland and Tennessee all have three losses (though the Titans are 1-3, while the Browns and Raiders are 2-3). Maybe one or more of them will stick as a surprise team. Surely we should wait until at least 10 games in or so before assuming that though. Don’t forget, last year the Browns got deep into last year at 7-4 before falling apart. A sudden collapse is always waiting for teams that aren’t good enough.

*Can we rule out Miami, Houston and Jacksonville? Yes, we can.

*That brings us full circle back to the Bills and Jets. Maybe both of these teams will make the playoffs. But given the difficult of playing each other twice, playing the Patriots twice and the fact that both are relative newcomers to playoff contention, I would only bet on one of them making it.

That leaves Pittsburgh and San Diego.

Both teams were 2-2 when the final drive of Monday Night began. Both teams have tough games ahead, the Steelers hosting the Arizona Cardinals and the Chargers visiting the Green Bay Packers. Both teams still have to play their division frontrunner—Cincinnati and Denver respectively—twice. Pittsburgh is the one who got out of MNF with a 3-2 record, a one-game lead in the playoff race and a tiebreaker edge in their back pocket.

We’ve seen these two teams come to the wire before. In 2013, the Steelers watched anxiously to see if the Chargers would lose to the Chiefs in Week 17 and thereby open the door to the playoffs for Pittsburgh. San Diego won that game, aided heavily by what was acknowledged by the NFL to be a bad officiating call. The Chargers took advantage and won a first-round game in Cincinnati.

San Diego fans might feel like Bell’s knee hit the ground before he scored the winning touchdown. Replay only said the call “stands”, so they might be right. Watching it myself I thought he scored, but it was “thisclose”, so I can understand the frustration. Particularly given that I believe that fraction of a second that gave Bell the touchdown will be the difference between the Steelers and Chargers on the playoff bubble come January 3.