Expanded playoffs means money

PITTSBURGH – Merry Christmas, and thanks for finding some time in your holiday to spend with the sports section.

That applies even if you’re on a committed program of in-law avoidance today.

The NFL sells hope, and you don’t have to look any further than this Sunday’s match up at Heinz Field for proof.

It’s the Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers, two sub-.500 teams finishing out a season that’s been disappointing for both.

But because the Steelers are in this crazy four-way parlay that could allow them to get the final AFC playoff spot, the game has meaning.

The magic of the second wild card.

Trust me on this: There was a time when the NFL “postseason” was one game. The winner of the Western Conference played the Eastern Conference champion and that was it. Football season was over before the champagne corks were popped on New Year’s Eve.

The NFL expanded the playoffs, and it’s been nothing but money since then. Stadiums sell out but, more importantly, TV networks lust for more product and viewers turn it into a ultra-lucrative bonus month for the networks and their advertisers.

The expanded field means more teams are engaged in the chase. That allows a 7-8 team like the Steelers to go into the last game of the season with a faint pulse.

It’s unlikely everything will fall into place for the Steelers, but it’s theoretically possible. Without that long shot at playoff spot No. 6, there would probably be 25,000 empty seats on Sunday.

Instead, opportunity is there. The Steelers should be able to take care of an inferior Browns team. After that, it’s a matter of wishing and hoping and engaging in whatever superstition seems to work to make sure the other three games turn out the way they need to.

If that happens, everyone associated with the Steelers should head over to the Rivers Casino after the game. Then buy a fistful of lottery tickets on the way home.

If you’re on that kind of lucky roll, might as well take full advantage.

Big decisions ahead

If the Steelers fall short, they’ll need to get to work on the 2014 season immediately.

There are some major decisions ahead as the Steelers wrestle with the reality that their defense has become old, inefficient and a burden on the salary cap.

One of the most interesting issues is linebacker Jason Worilds, who is about to become an unrestricted free agent.

Worilds has shown significant improvement in the second half of the season. He looks like he could be an impact player on a defense that needs plenty of help.

This is in sharp contrast to his previous work with the Steelers, where he looked like a waste of a second-round draft choice.

The Worilds the Steelers have seen lately is a must-keep player. But is that the player they’ll get for a major investment?

Has Worilds turned a corner, or is he just someone who’s found a higher gear at the most opportune time?

There are going to be plenty of headlines coming from Steelers headquarters throughout the offseason.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com