5 things we learned: Do you believe in miracles? How Steelers can reach the AFC playoffs

Five things we learned from Steelers 24, Panthers 16:

1. Looking ahead

If Christmas is the time for miracles, then let’s dig into one the Steelers will need to reach the playoffs as the AFC’s No. 7 seeds.

With three games remaining, the Steelers still sit in the No. 13 spot in the AFC, same as they did last week before beating the Panthers. Their odds of reaching the postseason, according to fivethirtyeight.com, have ticked up from 0.2% to 0.3%.

Talk about a long shot.

Here is one way, though, that the 6-8 Steelers could win their final three games and make it, although it’s about as likely as the Raiders beating the Patriots on a last-second botched lateral:

The Steelers play the two teams directly ahead of them in the standings. Wins over No. 11 Las Vegas and No. 12 Cleveland, who each are 6-8, would eliminate those teams.

• Miami (8-6), the No. 7 seed, loses its final three games to finish 8-9.

• New England (7-7), the No. 8 seed, beats Miami in Week 17 but loses to Cincinnati and Buffalo to finish 8-9.

• New York Jets (7-7), the No. 9 seed, beat Miami in Week 18 but lost to Jacksonville in Week 16 and Seattle in Week 17 to finish 8-9.

• Jacksonville (6-8), the No. 10 seed, beats the New York Jets in Week 16 but loses at least one of its final two games (against Houston and Tennessee) to finish 8-9, or 7-10.

Everything in that scenario hinges on Miami losing its final three games. If Miami doesn’t, the Steelers would need the Los Angeles Chargers, the No. 6 seed at 8-6, to lose their final three games and finish at 8-9. If the Chargers finish 9-8, they would advance over the Steelers because of a superior conference record.

2. Drive time

Some nuggets unearthed by the Steelers and the league’s stats department about the 21-play, 91-yard drive that lasted 11 minutes, 43 seconds and resulted in a touchdown that provided a 21-7 lead in the third quarter:

• It was the second-longest drive in the NFL over the past four seasons. In terms of time of possession, the 49ers had one in 2021 against Jacksonville that spanned 13:05.

• For the Steelers, it was their longest in terms of plays since 1995 when they pieced together a 19-play drive at Green Bay.

• In terms of time, it was the longest since a drive at Baltimore in 2001 that consumed 11:15.

• Since 1993, the NFL has recorded four drives that lasted more plays: San Diego had a 25-play drive against Denver in 1997, New Orleans had a 24-play drive against Carolina in 2007, Indianapolis had a 22-play drive against New England in 2000 and Oakland had a 22-play drive against Kansas City in 1994.

3. Backup plan

Inside linebacker Robert Spillane has his faults in coverage, but he has become a dependable commodity when injuries take place among his position group. For the second time this season, Myles Jack was unable to play because of an injury.

For the second time in Jack’s absence, Spillane was the inside linebacker who didn’t leave the field. Spillane played all 46 defensive snaps against the Panthers. He took every snap when Jack didn’t play against the Saints in Week 10.

Spillane also took the mantle from Jack as being the team’s top tackler in the game, recording six solo tackles and seven overall. Devin Bush, meanwhile, played just 25 snaps. He was often the odd-man out when the Steelers brought in James Pierre as an extra cornerback.

4. Common bonds

Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren continue to have a nice symmetry in the offense when it comes to splitting the reps at running back.

Harris played 66% of the snaps and Warren was on the field 34% of the time, even getting the call at the end of the game when the Steelers were driving for Chris Boswell’s field goal that made it a two-score game with 1: 04 left.

Harris had the first three carries on the 13-play drive. Enter Warren, who got three carries before Harris returned to the field after the two-minute warning. Harris carried two more times before Boswell kicked his 50-yarder.

Harris has endured his share of ups and downs in his second NFL season. Still, if he averages 70 rushing yards over the final three games, he will reach 1,000 rushing yards again.

5. Taking a dive

For a moment late in the first half, it looked like the punt coverage team had turned in one of the best special teams plays of the season.

Pressley Harvin III, punting from the Carolina 44, dropped the ball inside the 5, but it bounced towards the end zone. Pierre chased after the ball and tipped it into the air. Miles Boykin, trailing behind Pierre, also dived and tipped the ball back into the field of play where it was down at the 1.

The fancy footwork went for naught as officials determined that Pierre’s foot was on the goal line when he touched the ball, resulting in a touchback and the Panthers taking over at the 20.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at jrutter@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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