The Pittsburgh Steelers have won four straight games. (Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sport)

No one would have blamed you for writing off the Pittsburgh Steelers early in the season. Coach Mike Tomlin not only saw his team lose three straight and four of its first five games, he and the team had to endure the Week 2 loss of Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback since 2004 and a two-time Super Bowl winner. But with Mason Rudolph leading the way under center and a rejuvenated defense, including do-everything defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, on the other side of the field, the Steelers have now won four straight, putting themselves right back in playoff position.

Pittsburgh isn’t the team in the jumbled AFC playoff race dealing with a change at quarterback. The Indianapolis Colts announced the retirement of Andrew Luck before the start of the season, thrusting backup Jacoby Brissett into a starting role, although Brissett missed Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins with a knee injury. And the Tennessee Titans realized Marcus Mariota, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NFL draft, wasn’t the franchise quarterback they thought he was, giving Ryan Tannehill another shot at a starting job. Now Tennessee has won three out of four.

Surprisingly, all three of those teams are in the thick of the AFC’s playoff picture, which remains a complicated thicket. If the season ended today, the two wild-card teams would be the Buffalo Bills (6-3) and Steelers (5-4), but they’re only marginally ahead of other contenders such as the Colts (5-4), Titans (5-5) and Oakland Raiders (5-4).

Seed AFC Team Record Reason in playoffs
No. 1 New England Patriots 8-1-0 AFC East winner
No. 2 Baltimore Ravens 7-2-0 AFC North winner
No. 3 Houston Texans 6-3-0 AFC South winner
No. 4 Kansas City Chiefs 6-4-0 AFC West winner
First wild card Buffalo Bills 6-3-0
Second wild card Pittsburgh Steelers 5-4-0 Conference win percentage tie-breaker
Oakland Raiders 5-4-0
Indianapolis Colts 5-4-0
Tennessee Titans 5-5-0

Based on their true talent level — derived by looking at actual win rate, projected win rate based on total points scored and allowed and a regressed win rate that accounts for the small sample size of eight or nine games — we can project the season 1,000 times and find the Bills, with a projected end-of-season record of 10-6, have the best path to the playoffs. But that method just provides an average record based on 1,000 simulations. Buffalo’s range of outcomes stretches from seven wins (two percent chance) to 13 wins (one percent chance). The most likely outcome (10 wins) should be good enough to secure, at the very least, one of the two wild-card spots.

The second wild-card spot? The Steelers, Raiders and Colts are all expected to finish the 2019 campaign with eight or nine wins, giving them a solid chance to earn that last berth. The Los Angeles Chargers and Titans are also in the mix. However, the Steelers have the best chance of exceeding expectations, while the Colts, Chargers and Titans are more likely to fall short based on their upcoming strength of schedule.

The Steelers will go on the road to face the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals over the next two weeks followed by games against the Browns (at home), Arizona Cardinals (road), Bills (home), New York Jets (road) and Baltimore Ravens (home). Four of those teams — the Browns, Bills, Bengals and Jets — rank in the bottom third of the league in points scored per drive, giving Pittsburgh an average win rate of 56 percent for those seven matchups, the highest among all the teams currently on the AFC playoff bubble.

The Bills also have a relatively soft schedule in front of them, perhaps helping them maintain control of the first wild-card slot. The Titans, meanwhile, still have to face the Jacksonville Jaguars, Colts, Raiders, Texans (twice) and New Orleans Saints, giving them an average win rate of just 46 percent for their remaining contests.

Week Bills win probability Chargers win probability Colts win probability Raiders win probability Steelers win probability Titans win probability
11 80 percent 42 percent 59 percent 77 percent 54 percent bye
12 67 percent bye 37 percent 64 percent 75 percent 59 percent
13 43 percent 55 percent 53 percent 32 percent 61 percent 47 percent
14 43 percent 52 percent 55 percent 51 percent 59 percent 51 percent
15 53 percent 39 percent 35 percent 56 percent 47 percent 43 percent
16 23 percent 57 percent 51 percent 43 percent 67 percent 42 percent
17 78 percent 35 percent 52 percent 51 percent 31 percent 37 percent
Average win probability 55 percent 47 percent 49 percent 53 percent 56 percent 46 percent

As you would expect, the easier set of remaining games gives Buffalo and Pittsburgh better than a 50-50 chance at making the playoffs. The Raiders aren’t too far behind but the Colts, Titans and Chargers have some work to do.

The top of the AFC’s playoff race, by comparison, is in sharp focus. The New England Patriots have an 11th straight AFC East title in their sights, which would also likely provide them with the top seed in the conference. The Ravens, led by MVP candidate Lamar Jackson, appear ready to be the kings of the North while the Texans (South) and Kansas City Chiefs (West) are also on track to be division winners.

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