A closer look at the schedule

At first glance, the Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 schedule looks loaded with annual and potential playoff contenders – and it is.

But looking at it a little more closely, it\’s not as bad as it seems.

In fact, the playoffs could be a strong possiblility again in Mike Tomlin\’s second season.

I know – it\’s difficult to look at a schedule, particularly before the draft, and say who\’s going to do what.

But if you look at it with an eye on the past, you can get an idea of what the end result will look like.

The Steelers open at home Sept. 7 in a game against the Houston Texans, a game they should win with relative ease.

After that, they travel to Cleveland to face the team many feel will be the one to beat in the AFC North this season.

But Cleveland still has to show that it can beat the Steelers, something it has done just once in the last 10 times the two teams have met. Even though it will be a Sunday night game and the Browns will be fired up for prime time, I’m not ready to chalk that up as a loss just yet.

We\’ll come back to this game later.

Next, Pittsburgh travels cross state to face Philadelphia Sept. 21.

The Eagles will be coming off a short week after playing at Dallas on Monday night. Again, it’s a tough game, but not one I’d ready to assume is a loss even though the Steelers haven’t won in Philadelphia in the regular season since 1965, going 0-7 in that span.

The Steelers return home to face Baltimore in a Monday night game Sept. 29, a game they should win.

They next head to Jacksonville on a short week to face the Jaguars in another prime time game, one that is likely a loss. Pittsburgh has its bye in Week 6 and comes out of that to head to Cincinnati. Given what Cincinnati has done this offseason, there’s nothing to suggest the Steelers shouldn’t win that game.

After that, Pittsburgh comes home to face the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, a game they should be able to win at home. As the Steelers found out a couple of years ago, everybody gives the defending champions their best shot.

They then head to Washington for a Monday night game Nov. 3 in what should be another tossup.

Nov. 9, the Steelers return home on the short week to face Indianapolis. But Indianapolis will be coming off a game against New England, which, given the way that game has been treated in recent years, will be like a mini-Super Bowl.

It smells like a letdown game to me for the Colts.

The Steelers had better not have a similar letdown the next week, as San Diego rolls into Pittsburgh. But the Chargers are just 2-12 in games in Pittsburgh, so you have to like the Steelers in that one as well.

Finally, a three-game home swing ends Thursday, Nov. 20 with a game against Cincinnati, a game that will be very difficult for the Bengals considering the short week.

That should be another victory.

Pittsburgh heads to New England Nov. 30 in what should be a sure loss before coming back home to host Dallas Dec. 7. The game will be the Cowboys’ lone road trip in a five-game stretch and we’ll write it off as a loss.

After that, Pittsburgh heads on a two-game road trip, first at Baltimore, then at Tennessee.

The Steelers, for whatever reason, always seem to split with the Ravens, so a win at Heinz Field earlier in the year will mean that we’ll chalk up a loss in that one.

At Tennessee the next week, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau should be able to come up with a plan to shut down the running game and force Vince Young to beat the Steelers, something I don’t think he’s capable of doing.

Finally, the Steelers finish up with Cleveland at home in a game that could decide the winner of the AFC North.

With the schedule the way it is before the bye, the Steelers figure to be 3-2 at best, 2-3 at worst at that point.

If they start 3-2, wins over Cincinnati (twice), the Giants, Indianapolis, San Diego and Tennessee will have the Steelers sitting at 9-6 heading into the finale with the Browns and likely mean that a win at Heinz Field will give the Steelers a playoff spot and/or the AFC North title.

If they go 2-3 in their first five games, they’re going to have to steal a win at some point – against Dallas at home, or Baltimore or Washington on the road – to get to where a win over the Browns in the finale will put them at 10-6.

Now all of this supposes wins over a couple of tough teams at home – Indianapolis and San Diego – along the way. But that\’s not out of the question.

What happens with the draft and injuries will certainly play a factor in what eventually happens this season.

But the bottom line is that the Steelers figure to be in the hunt for the playoffs again in 2008.

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