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(Yahoo!) The thing about a maddening, inconsistent team is that sometimes their best days can be really good.

And so it goes for the Pittsburgh Steelers lately.

It’s hard to remove the stink of losses to the Tampa Bay BuccaneersNew York Jets and New Orleans Saints, but the Steelers have emerged as a contender in the AFC the past few weeks. 

The Steelers’ 20-12 win against a Kansas City Chiefs team battling for a wild-card spot was impressive, and it also clinched a playoff spot. The Chiefs’ passing game is stuck in 1943 at times, but they’re still a good team. And the Steelers kept them out of the end zone and controlled the game. Pittsburgh's winning without its offense clicking was a good sign because more often than not, an offense with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown will do just fine.

That’s what makes the Steelers dangerous in the playoffs. If they beat Cincinnati next week on "Sunday Night Football," they’ll win the AFC North and get a home playoff game. Then they could be a tough matchup for the New England Patriots or Denver Broncos. The offense is very good and diverse, and if they can get hot, who knows?

The first step comes next week with the AFC North championship game in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers can show they're beyond the yo-yo effect from earlier in the season by taking care of business against the Bengals. The Steelers will be favored to win, and rightfully so.

The Steelers have won three in a row since that inexcusable home loss to the Saints (that’s one of two New Orleans wins since October, and the other was against a Chicago Bearsteam that looks entirely disinterested), and that streak has been good enough to lock up a playoff spot. As up and down as the Steelers have been, now that they’re in the field anything seems possible, especially considering the Buccaneers and Jets won't be hanging around in January. At very least, nobody is going to want to face the Steelers in the postseason. They'll be a very tough out, unless the bad Steelers suddenly reemerge.

Here are the rest of the winners and losers for Week 16 in the NFL:

WINNERS

Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett: It seemed dumb when Jones stuck by Garrett despite those strings of 8-8 seasons.

It seemed like this was the stubborn billionaire marching to his own beat, and he took plenty of heat for it. It doesn’t look so foolish now, does it?

The Cowboys clinched the NFC East on Sunday with a thorough 42-7 thrashing of theIndianapolis Colts. Very few people expected too much of the Cowboys before the season. If Bruce Arians hadn’t already had the coach of the year award sewn up, Garrett would be a fine choice for it.

And this seems impossible, but these Cowboys have been underrated all season. Everyone is waiting for them to regress, but that hasn’t happened. They’re now 11-2 if you discount the game in which Tony Romo broke his back and the game he missed the following week. They’re a really good team. Garrett deserves a lot of credit for that. So does Jones, no matter how tough it is for you to admit it. 

Carolina Panthers: I’m not thrilled the NFC South is going to get a playoff spot, but I can still give the Panthers credit for being alive to win what is probably the worst division ever.

Carolina was once 3-8-1. Quarterback Cam Newton suffered two fractures in the transverse process in his back in a car accident on Dec. 9. But the South was so collectively bad that the Panthers were never out of it, and three straight wins have them in line for a play-in game against the Falcons on Sunday. The winner goes to the playoffs. There has never been a repeat champion in the NFC South; the Panthers could be the first.

The Panthers had to come back on Sunday. The Cleveland Browns hit an 81-yard touchdown to tight end Jordan Cameron in the fourth quarter to take a lead, but Jonathan Stewart’s 9-yard touchdown catch from Newton with 7:07 gave Carolina a 17-13 lead they never gave up. Newton didn’t look like someone who was in a scary car accident 12 days earlier. He had 201 passing yards and 63 yards rushing. It wasn’t easy for the Panthers on Sunday, but it was a tough win and good enough to stay alive for a division title.

Joe Philbin: It was a great day for Philbin. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said he would be back as his head coach next season. But was it a great day for the Miami Dolphins? You could probably find more than a few Dolphins fans that would say no.

The Dolphins were eliminated from the playoffs despite beating Minnesota 37-35 when a late blocked punt resulted in a safety. It was a weird time for Ross to announce Philbin is coming back, with one year on his contract. It was even stranger because Jim Harbaugh will likely be available soon. Ross is a Michigan alum, and Harbaugh played quarterback there. Instead of making a run at Harbaugh (maybe Ross wants Harbaugh at his alma mater instead?), via trade or if the 49ers let him go, Philbin will coach a lame duck season. Or Philbin will get a contract extension, which probably wouldn’t go over too well in Miami, where Philbin has gone 23-24 in three seasons.

But, all of this worked for Jones and Garrett, so maybe there’s something to Ross’ patience. If nothing else, you can cross off a potential NFL landing spot for Harbaugh.

#JJforMVP: This week’s update on Texans defensive end J.J. Watt: Seven tackles, a sack, and a  domination of a Ravens team that could have clinched a playoff spot with two more wins. Joe Flacco was 4-for-22 at one point against a defense that will probably have just one Pro Bowl player. The 25-13 win, with the Texans on their fourth quarterback of the year, keeps Houston alive for a playoff spot.

Watt won’t win the NFL MVP award he deserves because: A) He doesn’t play offense (or, specifically, he doesn’t play quarterback), and B) the Texans likely won’t make the playoffs. I can’t figure out which reason is more illogical.

LOSERS

St. Louis Rams: The Rams were far more interested in delivering cheap shots to Odell Beckham Jr. than actually covering the New York Giants rookie receiver.

What did that get the Rams? Not much. They lost 37-27 and Beckham had 148 receiving yards and two touchdowns. If the Rams didn't want Beckham to celebrate, maybe they should have kept him out of the end zone.

Giants Jason Pierre-Paul, Antrel Rolle and Jameel McClain all said the Rams were “dirty,”according to ESPN.com.

"Dirty-[expletive] team! That dirty [stuff] doesn't help you win! They suck as an organization!" McClain said as he left the field, according to ESPN.com.

But that’s what Jeff Fisher has built in St. Louis. The lack of discipline is one reason a team that is talented enough to beat Denver, Seattle and San Francisco is 6-9 and got worked by a bad Giants team at home on Sunday.

Lovie Smith: If you’re ranking NFL coaches this year, Smith checks in at No. 32. Wait, the Raiders have had two coaches this year. So make it No. 33 for Smith.

Smith ruined the Buccaneers, and if he was fired after one season, it would be justified. A 2-13 team hasn’t played Mike Glennon, last year’s all-rookie quarterback, since Nov. 2. Josh McCown, who is 35 years old, was 12-of-26 for 147 yards and looked awful in a 20-3 loss to the Packers, but he was never pulled. Remember, the reason McCown was signed and is starting is because Smith needs to feel comfortable with a veteran quarterback, apparently no matter how bad that veteran is. This is coaching malpractice.

The good news for the Buccaneers is that their constant losing (and for Smith’s sake I hope this is tanking, because there’s no way the Bucs should be this inept if they're not trying to lose) has put them in position to get the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. Tampa Bay will pick first if they lose to New Orleans next week, and can pick no lower than second. Tennessee will select first if it loses and Tampa Bay wins. The Buccaneers might pick Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota if they get the top pick, but would you want Smith around a promising young quarterback?

Indianapolis Colts: I know the Colts didn’t have much to play for on Sunday, but it’s clear this team is not ready to be a contender.

The Colts looked bad at Dallas. Tony Romo had four touchdowns and two incompletions. Brandon Weeden came off the bench to add a long touchdown. Even Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was awful, with just 109 yards, a career low. From Mike Chappell of RTV6, the Colts have allowed Romo, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Roethlisberger to complete 99 of 135 passes for 1,331 yards, 15 touchdowns and two interceptions this season. That’s a 133.1 rating. And the Colts are going to face some good quarterbacks in the playoffs. Maybe the Colts can win a January game or two if Luck gets really hot, but he would have to overcome a roster that’s not as good as its 10-5 record.

The Louisiana Superdome: Remember when the Saints had an advantage in that building? That’s long gone.

The Saints lost their fifth home game in a row, which seemed inconceivable a year ago. This has been a remarkable collapse for the Saints, which culminated with a 30-14 loss to the Falcons. When the Saints trailed 20-14 and Drew Brees needed to take his team 90 yards with less than three minutes left to avoid playoff elimination, he threw a terrible interception to practically end the Saints' season.

Where do the Saints go from here? It’s possible the Sean Payton-Brees combination is having an off year and will be fine in 2015. But they had salary-cap issues this past offseason, and already have more than $160 million committed to the cap for 2015 according to OverTheCap.com, which is well over the projected cap. So there won’t be any quick fixes in the offseason, and it's likely their depth takes another hit. 

The loss to the Falcons not only eliminated the Saints from this season’s playoff race, it’s possible it will be a while before the Saints completely rebound.

The worst loss of the week: The Ravens tried to take the title, blowing a game at Houston to screw up a win-and-in playoff scenario, but there’s only one answer here. The Philadelphia Eagles lost to a 3-11 Redskins team on Saturday, their third loss in a row, and were eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday. What a long offseason it will be in Philly.

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