Update: Yeah, they're pretty much dead.
"That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die." - H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
There are lots of similarities between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cthulhu, of course. One is steeped in ancient history and tradition, has strange rituals associated with its supporters and can inspire terror, revulsion and insanity in those who look upon it. The other, of course, is Cthulhu.
Seriously, though, the Steelers' play these past few weeks has been pretty horrific. They suffered bad losses against the Bengals and Chiefs, then showed some promise against the Ravens with backup quarterback Dennis Dixon, but still lost in overtime. It looked like they might have turned a corner. However, they followed that with perhaps their worst loss of the season last week, where they allowed the not-so-fearsome Oakland Raiders and quarterback Bruce Gradkowski to beat them at home on a last-minute drive. They're now 6-6 with a lousy 4-5 AFC record, and their playoff hopes look dim. Not what many of us expected from the defending Super Bowl champions.
However, like Cthulhu, you can't just write the Steelers off as dead. They have four very winnable games left (at Cleveland tonight, vs. Green Bay, vs. Baltimore, at Miami). Cleveland is pretty much a guaranteed win for this team if they play anything like they should; the Browns have no offence and not much defence, and their only dangerous player is Joshua Cribbs. Green Bay is probably the toughest team left on this list, but the Steelers give them matchup problems; the Packers have had offensive line issues all year and the Steelers have a great pass rush, especially with outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers almost beat Baltimore on the road with a backup quarterback, so I like their chances against the Ravens at home. Miami is difficult, but they may have nothing to play for in that one, and they're already without quarterback Chad Pennington and running back Ronnie Brown. They're still a good team, but I think Pittsburgh is better all around.
If the Steelers can in fact run the table, they'll be in pretty decent shape for a wild-card berth. They would have a 10-6 overall record, with a 7-5 record against the AFC and a 3-3 record in their division. Let's take a look at their other playoff competition and the NFL's tie-breaking procedures.
At the moment, the 8-4 Denver Broncos and 7-5 Jacksonville Jaguars hold the AFC wild-card spots. However, both have difficult schedules left. Denver gets 12-0 Indianopolis on the road this week, then the ever-dangerous Raiders (4-8, but they've beaten plenty of good teams and this is a divisional rivalry game for them) at home. They then face the 8-4 Eagles on the road and division rival Kansas City at home. If they lose to the Colts and Eagles, but win against the Raiders and Chiefs, they'd be 10-6. They'd have an 8-5 conference record, better than Pittsburgh, but they lost the head-to-head matchup, so they lose to the Steelers in a wild-card tie between just those two clubs.
Jacksonville also has a difficult finish to the season. They host Miami this week, then host Indianapolis, go on the road against New England and close the year with a game against the Browns. For them, a lot will depend on how hard the Colts play; if they come out flying in that game, I don't see the Jaguars winning it. If they lose to New England and Indy, the Jags would finish 9-7 and be behind the Steelers. Miami is also a possible loss. If they manage to win two of those games as well as against Cleveland, they're 10-6 with a 9-3 conference record, which would likely get them a wild-card spot.
Of the 6-6 teams, some of them have the chance to get to 10-6, but it's going to be difficult. Baltimore plays Detroit and Chicago at home in games they should win, but they then go on the road against Pittsburgh and Oakland. If the Steelers can win that head-to-head game, they don't need to worry about the Ravens. Miami plays at Jacksonville, at the surging 5-7 Titans, and then hosts 5-7 Houston and 6-6 Pittsburgh. Even if the Dolphins are 9-6 going into the final week, Pittsburgh still controls their own destiny thanks to the head-to-head game. The Jets get Tampa Bay this week and 6-6 Atlanta the following week, but then face the Colts and the 9-3 Bengals, and their conference record (2-4) is worse than the Steelers.
Thus, the Steelers still even have hope if they can't win out, but if they run the table, things look awfully good for them. They're still very good on paper and can make plays in the running game, in the passing game and on defence. If they get Troy Polamalu back, they'll be a team no one wants to face. They may be sleeping right now, but I wouldn't call them dead yet.