Steelers’ AFC North-Heavy Early Schedule May Be Intentional

There are a lot of ways to dissect the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2018 regular season schedule, which was officially revealed last night. Other than the fact that they have been allotted their usual five games in prime time (and another three evening games, leaving them with just eight afternoon kickoffs), the biggest impression that my initial analysis of the schedule that I’ve had is the fact that the team will get its division business out of the way early.

The Steelers have a Week Seven bye this year, and by then they will have already played all of their division opponents once. They open for the second year in a row against the Cleveland Browns, and once again they will be facing a different starting quarterback, because Cleveland.

While they get a two-week reprieve from their division rivals after that, it’s right back to business with a primetime game at home against the Baltimore Ravens. This game comes on a short week, as they are in Florida for Monday Night the week prior to that against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Right after that they face the Cincinnati Bengals with Vontaze Burfict already reinstated in Week Six as they head into their bye week. But you thought it stopped there? Surely not, because their first two opponents on the other side of the break are the Browns and the Ravens again.

That’s right, five of the Steelers’ first eight games of the 2018 season will be division games, which is the most they can possibly have, since the NFL has scheduled that all Week 17 games will be division games. After two seasons closing against the Browns, they close this time in Pittsburgh hosting the Bengals.

It is a rather curious decision on the league’s part and one I can’t help but wonder is motivated. The AFC North has not been particularly competitive for the past couple of seasons, with the Steelers the only team that has advanced to the postseason in the past two years, though the Bengals did win the division in 2015 (promptly losing to a Wildcard Steelers team).

Given that Pittsburgh is both historically and contemporaneously one of the premiere franchise, and their lack of competition within the division the past couple of years, I might guess that the decision-makers elected to get the division out of the way early and place more meaningful non-division games late in the schedule.

Rather than see the Steelers contend for the division late in the year, it seems instead that they expect Pittsburgh will be more concerned with vying for their playoff seeding, a postseason berth virtually assured.

Last season, the Steelers had three division games in their last five of the year. The year before that, all three of their final games were against their division opponents. Such a lopsided first-half schedule hasn’t come Pittsburgh’s since the realignment. 2002, the first year of the realignment, was the only other year in that span they played four division games in the first eight in the AFC North era.

Of course, they briefly played in a six-team division, and so played 10 division games a year so it did happen during that time, most recently in 2000. In fact, eight of their first nine games that year were against division opponents (which at the time also included the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars).

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