The Pittsburgh Steelers guaranteed a first-round bye and home playoff game with a division-clinching road win in their last game.
With another victory away from Heinz Field this week, they likely won’t have to play a road game again this season.
The AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed will effectively be on the line Sunday in Nashville, where the injury-plagued Tennessee Titans can wrap up the conference’s top spot or the Steelers can put themselves on the brink of doing the same with a sixth consecutive win.
It seemed like a foregone conclusion a month ago that the Titans (12-2) would host the AFC championship game on Dec. 18. Tennessee was undefeated through Week 11, had all but wrapped up the AFC South while allowing a league-low 13.1 points per game.
The Titans, though, have come back to the pack since they were routed 34-14 at LP Field by the New York Jets on Nov. 23. After blowout wins over Detroit and Cleveland, Tennessee’s shortcomings were evident again last Sunday in Houston.
Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson torched the Titans’ secondary for 207 yards and a touchdown, and Tennessee never found the end zone in a 13-12 loss.
To make matters worse, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth went down late with a sprained MCL that will keep him out until the playoffs.
“I think we were on vacation this week, knowing we got a bye and whatever other good stuff happened for us last week,” linebacker Keith Bulluck said. “But I know as a team we need to … come out and play football. Pittsburgh is playing for way more than us (on Sunday).”
Hours after Bulluck’s post-game quote, it became apparent that both teams have the same goal. Trailing 9-6 with under four minutes to play in Baltimore on Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger led a 12-play, 93-yard drive that culminated in a controversial touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes.
The initial call was the ball didn’t break the plane of the goal line, but after a lengthy review the decision was reversed, giving Pittsburgh a 13-9 win and the AFC North title.
With a win at Tennessee and another victory at home next weekend against the woeful Browns, who the Steelers (11-3) have beaten 10 straight times, coach Mike Tomlin’s team will be the AFC’s top seed.
“We would love to have that No. 1 spot, and try to get the easiest path there,” said receiver Hines Ward. “But in the AFC, I don’t think there is any easy way.”
Neither team has particularly fond recent memories of being the conference’s top seed. Tennessee was 13-3 in 2000 and had home-field throughout the playoffs, but lost its first game. Pittsburgh was the No. 1 seed in 1994, 2001 and 2004, but lost the conference championship game at home each time.
The last time the Steelers have won five in a row came in 2004 - Roethlisberger’s rookie season - when they rattled off victories in their final 13 regular-season games. None of these wins have been easy, though. Pittsburgh has rallied each time, and was losing with less than three minutes remaining in three of the victories.
With an offense that’s struggled to run the ball - the Steelers rank 23rd with 102.9 yards per game - it’s been the NFL’s top defense that’s made Pittsburgh so formidable.
The Steelers lead the league in rush defense, pass defense and total defense, and could become the first team to finish No. 1 in all three categories since the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles. Led by Pro Bowlers James Harrison, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh also has the No. 1 scoring defense (13.7 ppg).
The Steelers haven’t allowed 300 yards all season, and if they can hold Tennessee below that, they’ll surpass the 1973 Los Angeles Rams for the longest streak to start a season since the NFL merger in 1970.
“We step up to challenges. We’ve faced a bunch of hot offenses and hot quarterbacks, and they take it personal,” Tomlin said. “They respond to challenges. We have a unique group.”
The Titans allow 14.1 ppg, right behind the Steelers, but with Haynesworth out and star defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch also sidelined until the playoffs, backups Jason Jones and Dave Ball will have to step up.
Tennessee has the AFC’s top rushing attack with Chris Johnson, the conference’s second-leading rusher, and LenDale White. But against a Pittsburgh defense that gives up 3.2 yards per carry, the pressure may fall onto quarterback Kerry Collins.
Collins has seemingly been a perfect fit for a team with a run-oriented offense and solid defense, but when he’s had to make plays over the past few weeks, he’s struggled. Collins has completed 51.8 percent of his passes with three interceptions in his last two games.
“Guys gotta help Kerry out there,” tight end Bo Scaife said. “We have to catch balls and run the right routes, and we can’t just put it on him, you know. We all have to do better.”
If Pittsburgh needs additional incentive to avoid a potential trip back to Nashville for the AFC championship game, it just needs to look at its history there.
Since the franchise moved to Tennessee in 1997, the Titans have won six of seven at home against the Steelers. Pittsburgh’s most recent visit came in the 2003 divisional playoffs, a 34-31 overtime loss.