By Danny Cox

The Pittsburgh Steelers really could have put some distance between themselves and other teams in the AFC playoff race, but they came out flat against the San Diego Chargers. A loss to the lowly Bolts left the Steelers with a hold on the final AFC spot in the playoffs, but not by a lot.

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PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 09: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers congratulates Philip Rivers #17 of the San Diego Chargers after the game on December 9, 2012 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. San Diego won the game 34-24. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

(Credit, Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Currently, the Steelers are sitting at 7-6 and as the sixth seed in the AFC playoff ladder. The Cincinnati Bengals are also 7-6, but the Steelers own the head-to-head tiebreaker at this time. Coming up behind both of them though, is the New York Jets at 6-7.

The thing is, with three weeks left to go in the regular season, the Steelers are both in danger of being left out of the playoffs or could still win the AFC North.

Baltimore is in control of the division at this time with a 9-4 record, but aren’t far enough ahead with three games to go. This time of the year is when the elite teams are supposed to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. The Ravens would not have done that this past weekend if both the Bengals and Steelers hadn’t lost.

Once again though, that is where the Steelers fell into the beginning of a deep hole this past weekend.

Ben Roethlisberger returned from injury this weekend after spending three weeks on the shelf. His sprained shoulder may not have been fully healed, but his return was expected to light a fire under the rest of the Pittsburgh team and have them take down a Chargers team that was collapsing at 4-8.

Then, the Chargers came out and demolished them by building a 24-point lead on the Steelers, twice.

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Pittsburgh has to travel to Dallas and face off with Cleveland. Cincinnati has to travel to Philadelphia and face off with Baltimore. Right in the middle of those two games is one more head-to-head between both teams, and it takes place at Heinz Field.

That game alone could decide which team ends up with the possible sixth berth in the AFC playoffs.

Let’s not forget about the New York Jets though.

Even though their season has been filled with ups, downs, and confusion, the Jets still have a chance at the playoffs. New York obviously has the easiest remaining schedule of the three teams fighting for that sixth spot (Tennessee, San Diego, Buffalo), but they’d still need some help.

New York would need to win out and then have both the Bengals and Steelers to lose at least one game each. While it is almost guaranteed that one team will lose in the head-to-head, barring a tie, the Jets still need the other team to lose and possibly a little more help.

At this time, Pittsburgh is in control of the sixth and final spot in the playoffs for the AFC. If they win out, they’re in, no question. Lose one game, and the playoffs are not out of the question, but it’s going to be difficult.

A victory over the Chargers this weekend would have really distanced Pittsburgh from the rest of the pack and made the rest of the season a little less stressful. Now, they’ve got to go out, win out, and play like the Steelers team that won four in a row earlier this year.

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Danny Cox knows a little something about the NFL, whether it means letting you know what penalty will come from the flag just thrown on the field or quickly spouting off who the Chicago Bears drafted in the first round of the 1987 draft (Jim Harbaugh). He plans on bringing you the best news, previews, recaps, and anything else that may come along with the exciting world of the National Football League. His work can be found on