Notes and observations as the National Football League playoff picture begins to come into focus:
n The Steelers dug themselves a huge hole by losing their first four games this season.
It's almost impossible for a team to start the season on that kind of a skid and bounce back to make the playoffs.
But, as things are turning out, the Steelers' 34-28 Dec. 8 loss to the Miami Dolphins in a snowstorm at Heinz Field could turn out being the real killer.
Had Pittsburgh won that game, its playoff chances, even at 9-7, would be looking immeasurably better than they are right now. But a couple missed tackles on the slick field that day led to a late, decisive Miami touchdown that won the game for the Dolphins and could put the Steelers on the playoff sidelines for the second straight year.
If Pittsburgh beats woeful Cleveland this Sunday at home - a likely possibility - the Steelers would wind up 8-8 for the second straight season and would need the Dolphins, San Diego Chargers, and Baltimore Ravens all to lose in order for Pittsburgh to make the playoffs.
It's quite possible that San Diego could lose to the Kansas City Chiefs at home, and even more likely that Baltimore could drop its regular-season finale at Cincinnati. What isn't so likely is that the Dolphins will also lose to the New York Jets at home this Sunday, which makes that Dec. 8 loss the Steelers suffered to the 'Fins all that much more damaging.
n In the NFL playoffs, experience and past success count for a lot, which makes the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning a strong favorite to win the American Football Conference championship. For the same reasons, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots can never be discounted, either - as much as it would be very inviting to do so. But Denver is awfully tough to beat on its home field, and the Broncos will enjoy home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs if they can beat the Oakland Raiders in the regular-season finale this Sunday, or if the Patriots lose to the Buffalo Bills.
n In the National Football Conference, Seattle looked unbeatable at home until this past Sunday, when the Arizona Cardinals pulled an upset on the Seahawks' field. Teams like Arizona - if it gets into the playoffs at all - or defending conference champion San Francisco, would likely give the Seahawks all they can handle on any field.
n In the "What's Wrong With This Picture Department": While the Steelers are hoping to make the AFC playoffs with just eight wins, it's quite conceivable that Arizona could become just the second NFL team ever under the current playoff format to sit out the NFC postseason with 11 wins.
John Hartsock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org