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Unpopular Opinions

Unpopular Opinions: Pittsburgh is NOT a lock for AFC title game

Listen, I don't try to live my life as a contrarian. That's not true -- I kind of do. I spend a lot of time in public houses and taverns, and I have a two-hour commute that allows me to hear a lot of the sports world's most popular opinions. Sometimes, I think it's best to take a look at the other side.

In this space, I'll be articulating a handful of positions that are the opposite of what most people think -- unpopular opinions, if you will -- and explain why, well, my unpopular opinions are right and everyone else is wrong. Below are my unpopular opinions for Week 14.

UNPOPULAR OPINION: The Steelers are NOT a lock for the AFC Championship Game.

I was torn on how to take Mike Tomlin's words recently, when the Steelers coach openly acknowledged that his team was already looking ahead to Week 15's contest against New England. In an interview with Tony Dungy ahead of the Steelers' Week 12 win over the Packers, Tomlin referenced the Patriots game.

"I'm going to embrace the elephant in the room. [The game is] going to be fireworks," Tomlin said. "And it's probably going to be Part 1. That's going to be a big game."

Yeah, it is, dude. But keep that (stuff) on the down low. You don't walk into a holiday party and start bragging about how much you're looking forward to leaving and meeting up with some other people at the bar later. It might be true, but it's poor form.

Then again, I do kind of appreciate him being honest about it. It's the way the fans look at it.

Yes, when Tomlin made his Pats comments, Pittsburgh had three opponents on the schedule before New England. Well, those other games are the coming attractions -- Patriots-Steelers is the movie you paid to see. Steelers-Bengals? My guy Ike Taylor was on "Good Morning Football: Weekend" last week, and the former Pittsburgh CB said Cincinnati isn't a true Steelers rival. That the Bengals aren't really on the same level. I agree with that sentiment 100 percent. The Steelers are 29-9 against the Bengals since the turn of the millennium, having won each of the past six bouts.

Here's the problem, though: The Steelers are the Patriots' version of the Bengals. Not in an "on to Cincinnati" sense. But more of a "You should probably beat them a couple of times before talking about big games" kind of way. Tomlin is 2-6 against Bill Belichick's Pats, with New England currently riding a four-game win streak. The Steelers haven't beaten the Patriots in the postseason since 1997, and they were just blown off the field in last season's AFC Championship Game. In the motion picture that is the AFC playoffs, the Steelers are the Death Star ... and the Patriots are Wedge Antilles. You seem indestructible, but those pesky rebels always seem to find a way. (I know this kind of flies in the face of the way this analogy normally goes, but I feel good with it.)

So it's cool Tomlin addressed the elephant in the room. But should he have? I mean, let's address another elephant in this room: Are the Steelers a lock to be in the AFC title game? Wait a second: Are the Steelers even a lock to snag the No. 2 seed?

The Steelers are 6-1 in one-score games, which is good. But the teams they are beating in those games are not good, with all of them currently sitting at .500 or worse. Meanwhile, the heartbeat of Pittsburgh's defense, Ryan Shazier, underwent spinal stabilization surgery after a scary injury this past Monday night, ending his season. Shazier's importance to Keith Butler's unit cannot be overstated.

The 10-2 Steelers host the rival Ravens and Patriots over the next two games. Both of those are losable. But with very winnable games against the Texans and Browns to close out the regular season, Pittsburgh should finish no worse than 12-4. Meanwhile, my friends down in Duval County are 8-4. The Jags' remaining schedule: vs. Seattle, vs. Houston, at San Francisco, at Tennessee. Is it that hard to imagine this defensive dynamo running the table and finishing 12-4? No. And Jacksonville would have the tiebreaker over the Steelers, thanks to a 21-point win in Pittsburgh back in Week 5.

OK, I'll acknowledge that scenario might be a bit of a stretch, especially because I think the Steelers are indeed going to beat the Ravens this weekend. I would be far more bullish on Baltimore pulling off the road upset if Jimmy Smith were still on the field, but his absence seems like it's going to be too much to overcome against Antonio Brown and Co.

So, I'll give the Steelers a win this Sunday -- but they aren't beating the Patriots a week from Sunday.

For starters ... Since 2004, the Steelers are 16-10 in the week after playing the Ravens. That's not a bad mark. But for a proud franchise like Pittsburgh, it's kind of mediocre. And there's a completely understandable reason for this: Pittsburgh-Baltimore is a heated rivalry that takes a lot out of its combatants. It's not exactly easy bouncing back after leaving it all out on the field in a highly physical bout against your archrival ...

And again, Tomlin's team hasn't been able to solve Belichick's bunch very frequently over the past decade. There is a reason why the Steelers coach was talking about this game nearly a month before kickoff. This game is massive, and Pittsburgh knows it. Meanwhile, it really is just another game for the Patriots -- who, by the way, have been playing a long con with us all season long. New England made everyone think it was on the verge of falling back to the pack in the early goings, with an awful loss to the Chiefs on opening night and a Week 4 defeat to Carolina. The Pats gave up 32 points per game over their first four contests. Since then? They've allowed an average of 11.9 points per game -- going 8-0 in the process, of course. Same old Patriots.

So, here is how I see this playing out ...

The Steelers do end up with the No. 2 seed. But they're disheartened about looking up at the Patriots, and they end up losing to a hungrier Jaguars team, which ends up hitting the AFC Championship Game in New England. And yeah, there will be fireworks in that one.

POPULAR OPINION THAT IS ACTUALLY CORRECT: Russell Wilson's a true MVP candidate.

This season, Wilson has accounted for 82.2 percent of the Seahawks' yards -- no player has ever finished a season with a figure that high in the Super Bowl era. He has accounted for 307.3 passing + rushing yards per game this season. That's more than three teams (Baltimore, Cincinnati and Chicago). Tom Brady is No. 2 at 304.3. Wilson is also at his best in the fourth quarter, when he carries a 134.1 passer rating (tops in the league).

The Seahawks QB faces a tough test in Jacksonville this week. But what happens if he has his way with the ferocious Jags defense?

Brady and Carson Wentz have undoubtedly been great this season, but they're not alone in this race for the game's highest individual honor.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @AdamRank.

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