The Pittsburgh Steelers will kick off their 2022 season with a Week 1 road game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Eleven days later, they’ll be on the road again on a short week to take on the Cleveland Browns for a Thursday night, Week 3 contest.
If you’re wondering if it’s common to see such a heavy dose of AFC North opponents so early into a season, it isn’t. Not at all. In fact, since 2004, it’s only the second time a Steelers’ schedule has broken in such a way, playing two divisional opponents their first three weeks. The other came in 2014 with a win over the Cleveland Browns in Week 1 followed by an ugly loss to the Baltimore Ravens Week 2.
It’ll make the start of the Steelers’ upcoming season all the more important.
Normally, the league sandwiches in a NFC game over those first three weeks. It didn’t occur last year but in 2020, Pittsburgh opened the year against the New York Giants. In 2019, they faced the Seattle Seahawks Week 2, the infamous game Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season. In 2018, the team played Tampa Bay in Week 3 and in 2017, two of the team’s first three games were against the NFC North, facing the Vikings Week 2 and Bears Week 3. Not this year. They don’t face a NFC team until Week 6 when Tom Brady returns to Heinz Field.
All this is is a scheduling quirk but it’s more notable and interesting than trying to map out an entire season of wins and losses in mid-May. But this layout ramps up how critical these early games are. They’re always important, no team wants to start a season 1-2 and Pittsburgh knows all too well how to dig themselves a hole, starting 1-3 over the first month of last year. But a poor start would be especially concerning this year if Pittsburgh can’t at least split these two AFC North games.
Faltering there would be a hole awfully difficult to climb out of in what will be a competitive division with final standings likely determined by AFC North play. Despite first and fourth place last season being separated by just two overall wins, there was a direct correlation between final standing and divisional record. Here’s how the North finished last year.
AFC North Standings (2021)
1. Cincinnati: 10-7 (4-2 in AFCN)
2. Pittsburgh: 9-7-1 (4-2 in AFCN)
3. Cleveland: 8-9 (3-3 in AFCN)
4. Baltimore: 8-9 (1-5 in AFCN)
After Week 3, the Steelers won’t play a divisional foe until Week 11 when they host the Cincinnati Bengals. Meaning Pittsburgh needs to take advantage of the first three weeks of the season. If they do, they could control the board the rest of the way.