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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Who to root for, against

It has been a constant conundrum for fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the past couple of weeks as the team has climbed back from a 2-6 start to jump back into the playoff race: Who do I root for.

I thought I might be able to spell that out a little more for you this week heading into Week 16 of the NFL schedule – so long as I don’t confuse myself in the process.

First and foremost, the Steelers need a victory over the Baltimore Ravens this week at Heinz Field. That certainly is not a given, but considering the Ravens will likely be without Jonathan Ogden, by far their best offensive lineman, that task isn’t quite as daunting as it once seemed.

If, and only if, that happens, do the Steelers playoff hopes stay alive.

The second thing that needs to happen – and probably the most important of any scenarios – the Jaguars have to lose to New England in Jacksonville. Again, it’s not a given, but considering the Patriots still haven’t locked up their division and still have the possibility of nailing down one of the top two seeds in the AFC playoffs, New England has plenty of incentive to beat the Jags.

That game will be played at the same time the Steelers are taking on Baltimore, so a little scoreboard watching is allowed.

Of equal importance is the Jets' game at Miami Monday night. Considering the Jets finish up the season with Oakland at home – a game they could likely start their backups in and win – a loss by New York this week in Miami is very important. Miami should get running back Ronnie Brown back this week, so the Steelers have that going for them, which is nice.

Saturday night, Kansas City is at Oakland, which should be a lay-up for the Chiefs. But as we saw when the Steelers lost at Oakland, the Raiders defense can be dangerous and should be up to play a game against a division rival. Still Kansas City should win there, which would mean the best scenario for the Steelers would be for Denver to hold serve against Cincinnati at home at 4:15 Sunday.

The Steelers are actually OK from either standpoint if Denver or Cincinnati wins – so long as Kansas City does as well on Saturday. If Kansas City somehow loses to Oakland, the Steelers’ situation becomes a little more tenuous since a 9-7 Kansas City team eliminates a 9-7 Denver team in a multi-team tie in which the Steelers are involved. The Steelers would also like the Chiefs to have something to play for when they host Jacksonville in Week 17, so Kansas City staying alive in the hunt is something of a necessity.

Finally, since Tennessee is at Buffalo, one of those two teams will be eliminated this weekend. A tie would eliminate both, so you could always root for that. But barring a tie, both teams have difficult season enders, with Buffalo traveling to Baltimore and Tennessee hosting New England. Of the two games, Tennessee’s would seem to be a little easier. New England will be making its second consecutive road trip.

And just think, all that does is get you through another week. Ah, the wacky playoff chase in the AFC.

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