Before the actual year's end on Wednesday, there is the football year-end tomorrow. With all 32 teams closing out the regular season, only two divisions are left without a champion. Those two, the NFC South and AFC North (my hometown Steelers' division) are in fittingly similar positions: the top team in both is ahead by only a tie game and faces the second-ranked team tomorrow.
The two divisions have been tied at the hip all season. The NFL pairs divisions from opposing conferences each year and these two remaining titles have been the most lopsided pairing of the year: every team in the NFC South will finish with a losing record while three of the AFC North's four teams may make it into the playoffs. The Cleveland Browns, the one AFC North team already eliminated, had a winning record only two weeks ago (which disappeared when Johnny Manziel began starting) and will finish the season with a record equal to or better than the top NFC South team.
I'm excited for tomorrow's AFC North matchup. My Steelers are only a tie behind the Cincinnati Bengals and beat them handily 42-21 in their first face-off three weeks ago. Frankly, I think the Steelers have a real shot at a post-season run. They have the NFL's best wide receiver in Antonio Brown and its second-best running back in the Le'Veon Bell.
In examining the stats for the Steelers' 2014 season however, two possible stories emerge.
The first story is the team's oddly lopsided record, doing better with better teams and worse with worse teams. If the playoffs were played right now, not one of their five losses would have been against a playoff team. The overall record of the ten teams they beat is 0.45, while the overall record of the five teams that beat them is 0.36. In other words, the 2014 Steelers have a weakness for bad teams. Even within the abysmal NFC South, they lost to the two eliminated teams (New Orleans and Tampa Bay), but beat the two teams still vying for the division title tomorrow.
The alternate story isn't so kind to the Steelers. Looked at from a different angle, the Steelers haven't just lost to bad teams, they've really only played the bad teams. Their opponents' overall record stands at 0.42 (not surprising being the weighted average of the records mentioned a moment ago). In other words, the Steelers have, on average, played a roughly 6-9 team like the Rams, Vikings, or Saints -- with the ludicrous exception of the NFC South's Panthers, no team with this record will make the post-season.
The strongest opponent the Steelers have faced thus far are the AFC South champion Indianapolis Colts, quarterbacked by my former classmate Andrew Luck. Both teams have a 10-5 record now and had a 5-3 record when they faced each other. Well... the Colts were their strongest opponent outside the division (or, more importantly, their strongest opponent by likely playoff rankings). The Bengals were, technically speaking, the best team the Steelers have faced. I hate to say that aloud though.
In fact, the 10-4-1 Bengals are the only team the Steelers have met this year with a superior record -- whether you measure now or at the date of the game. Eight teams currently have better records than the Steelers, but the Bengals are the only one they've faced at all this year. Of course, even then, Cincinnati's record will have been only ahead by a tie in both matchups. And that'll change tomorrow after the Steelers stuff those tigers -- when the Steelers do face strong teams like the Colts and Bengals, they've won. Besides, tomorrow's a home game.
Ultimately, both Steeler narratives are true. Their offensive arsenal is relatively untested in the truest sense of the word.
They've stumbled only against bewilderingly bad teams like the Jets and Buccaneers, but held up against solid opponents and have yet to see a true underdog fight. Whether this season has been one of untapped potential or scoreboards over-inflated by weak opponents, only the playoffs will tell.
According to FiveThirtyEight, the Steelers are the sixth best team in football and the third best AFC team after the two bye week winners in New England and Denver. Their Elo ratings (which score teams around a baseline average of 1500) look kindly on teams with large margins of victory and tough opponents. The Steelers must rate fairly low on strength-of-schedule measures, but make up a decent amount of that ground from tending to beat their better opponents. The Colts, for instance, rate five slots lower than the Steelers despite having the same record as the Steelers. Then again, of course, the Steelers did also beat the Colts.
If the supernatural Nate Silver's estimates are to be believed, Pittsburgh will win tomorrow and then win again when facing the #2 AFC Wild Card (which, if Silver's rankings hold, is likely the Baltimore Ravens -- yet another AFC North team). Continuing on to the second round of the playoffs, they'll meet the Denver Broncos.
Two games shy of the Super Bowl would be the first time this entire year the Steelers meet a team ahead by a win. Whether that matchup would display their relative ability to meet a challenge or their relatively unchallenged season is yet to be seen. I've got my Terrible Towel up either way.