Yesterday, during one of ESPN’s offseason segments online, the topic of an AFC North Q&A got right to the point—who will win the division?
With each writer from each team contributing their answers, three of the four AFC North team beat guys went with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who finished the season on a four-game winning streak, 8-2 over their last 10 games, finishing 11-5 and winning the division for the first time in four years.
Of course, as we all know, the Steelers went on to lose to the Baltimore Ravens in the wildcard round of the players while they were without the services of first-team All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell, which certainly put a major damper on what was an uplifting trend for the season.
For those of you who actually still ever read ESPN, who may not be surprised to learn that the one dissenting take came from Ravens beat writer Jamison Hensley, who has a reputation for being one of the more home-base-inclined writers, favoring the Ravens even when logic might dictate otherwise.
But that is not what this article is about. Rather, it’s merely one of the points that he raised to make his argument that was the springboard for the topic. In touting the Ravens’ chances, Hensley invoked the AFC North’s purportedly weak schedule last season to explain away how three teams from the division ended up advancing to the postseason.
The problem is that that particular argument actually does not suit, nor accurately explain, the Steelers’ road to the playoffs, so arguing that a more difficult schedule would disproportionately expose Pittsburgh’s flaws and knock them out of the driver’s seat for the division crown would be unfounded.
The Steelers lost five games during the regular season last year, with four of them coming against teams that posted losing records. The only team that the Steelers lost to in 2014 that posted even a .500 record was the Ravens themselves, in the second game of the season, for which they were clearly ill-prepared.
With that Ravens loss, the Steelers posted a 6-1 record against the teams that they faced who finished the regular season with a winning record. That number includes three playoff teams—they also beat a fourth playoff team, the Carolina Panthers, though they, too, posted a losing record.
That this line of reasoning was invoked by an ESPN beat writer is not particularly significant; however, the schedule argument is one that I have seen being made frequently throughout the offseason for why the Steelers will fail to repeat their success.
It may well prove to be true, but it likely won’t come down to simply having the toughest schedule on paper, as dictated by their opponents’ win-loss records from the season prior.
After all, if the Steelers are expected to experience such a downswing because of their schedule, then their 11-5 record from the year before wouldn’t seem to mean as much. And they often don’t. The league is one of parity. It’s difficult for franchises to sustain prolonged success or failure for too long, with a few obvious outliers. But if Pittsburgh does want to get back to the postseason, they would do well to best the supposed softballs on their schedule anyway.