The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the pessimist’s take on the following question.
Question: What are the pros and cons of playing a backloaded schedule in terms of AFC North opponents?
As we all saw, of course, the Steelers’ schedule was released two days ago, along with the schedule of every other team in the league, and we’ve already analyzed aspects of it. Yesterday, I talked about the positive aspects of Pittsburgh having a backloaded slate of division games, so now I’ll talk about the downside.
As mentioned yesterday, the Steelers come off their bye week in Week Eight to close out the season with a nine-game run. A full five of those games are against AFC North opponents, including two in the first three games after the bye week, and then they close the season with a game apiece against each of their division rivals.
In a situation in which the Steelers are coming up from behind and building up a head of steam late in the season, a schedule that happens to break this way could be a blessing, and, in fact, it has worked out fairly well in recent years. Such a schedule in 2014 helped vault them to the division title.
But in a situation in which Pittsburgh actually comes out of the gate strong and builds a lead in the division, such a string of games begins to appear like murderer’s row, especially considering that all of their divisional opponents will be bracing for the opportunity to knock the leader off their perch.
If the Steelers are in a strong position in the AFC playoff race, that only adds more fuel to the fire should their division rivals have the opportunity to play spoiler. The Ravens likely cost the team the division with their two surprise victories last year, including one late in the season when they had been playing well.
Of course, if the Steelers are not playing well, or are banged up, that makes the situation all the more precarious. And lest we forget, the AFC North contests are often a bruising affair, especially against the Bengals of late—and Vontaze Burfict will be there for the second game, eager to dispense some revenge.
It could transpire that the Steelers run the AFC North gauntlet and come out the other end battered and bruised in preparation for the playoff run, and quite frankly, we’ve seen the team physically limp into the postseason with injuries far too often lately. This is perhaps the biggest concern with how the schedule breaks this season.