During the NFL offseason, we take what we can get. When it comes to news about our favorite team – or the league at large – from the minute the clock hits triple-zeroes at the Super Bowl until the next season begins, we’ll settle for any piece of news about professional football. Mock drafts? Sign me up. Pro days? Sure. Yet another team is taking its shot at resurrecting Tim Tebow? OK, I’ll pass on that one.
In this era of leaked information, instant Twitter reactions and hot takes by every former player and coach the sports networks can trot in from of a camera on a daily basis, I chose to let my take on the Steelers 2015 schedule simmer for a while before offering it up to the internet at large.
Perhaps the worst-kept secret of yesterday’s NFL schedule-release extravaganza was the revelation that the Steelers had been tapped as the opponent for the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on the opening Thursday night of the season. Though the “official” release of the schedule was to be at 8 p.m., my phone started buzzing with alerts from various news outlets around 3:30 that Steelers-Patriots was confirmed as the first game of the 2015 campaign.
Looking at the 2015 slate as a whole, most pundits have focused on the challenges that lie at the tail-end of the schedule for the black and gold. Sure the Steelers play four of their final six games on the road – five of them against 2014 playoff teams – but from where I’m sitting, there’s no part of the schedule that’s a bargain. The whole 16-game slate is a meat-grinder, and coming out on the other side of it with a playoff berth is far from a guarantee.
With Le’Veon Bell’s three-game suspension looming, learning last night that the Steelers would be without Bell for two NFC West games (vs. San Francisco and at St. Louis) in addition to the New England matchup has to be a bit of a relief to the fan base. If there were any AFC North matchups in the first three weeks of the season, the hand-wringing among Steelers Nation would be a little more vigorous. In the meantime, let’s look at this schedule one month at a time and steel ourselves for a fall filled with players and coaches reminding us that they take things one game at a time.
Aside from worrying about Tom Brady and the Pats hanging 55 points on the Steelers like they did back in 2013, my only other thought about the September slate is that it would have been nice to have the 49ers come calling in November or December. On Sept. 20, it could be warmer on the banks of the Allegheny River than it is in northern California.
Kicking off the month of October with a prime-time home game against Baltimore is likely to be an early turning point of the season. Depending on the team’s record after its three games with Bell in street clothes (come on, 2-1!), a loss to the Ravens in this spot could cause some lasting damage. I have no strong feelings about the rest of the month (at San Diego, vs. Arizona and at Kansas City). They’re decent teams with holes to fill – just like most teams at this time of the year.
November brings us the seemingly annual gift from the NFL schedule-makers of three consecutive home games. Hosting the Bengals, Raiders and Browns should – I repeat, should – allow the Steelers to either make up ground if they happen to stumble out of the gate or keep the momentum rolling with some home-cookin’ in the middle of the season. If the rest of the schedule is the hard candy shell, this three-game stretch – and the bye week that follows – is the soft, chewy center.
The first game of the brutal, six-game gauntlet that closes out the season is a trip to Seattle. Facing the NFC champions will be tough enough, but doing it on the road with the rain and the crowd noise…the game is seven months away and I already feel uneasy about it. Let’s move on.
December begins with a home date against the Colts on a Sunday night. Sad when a game against a quality team like Indianapolis is the highlight of the month for the Steelers. A road game with Cincinnati is followed by a home game against Denver and then a trip to Baltimore two days after Christmas. Wow. Just wow. If Pittsburgh hasn’t already stacked a few in the win column by this point in the year, things could unravel in a hurry with a poor showing in December.
The season concludes the first Sunday in January with a road game against the Browns. By then, maybe we’ll all be used to the brighter orange and the terrible new uniform designs the Cleveland brain trust inexplicably signed off on during the offseason. And I assume Johnny Manziel will still be a train wreck – both on and off the field.
At this point, let’s take a minute to recognize the 24/7/365 hype machine that is the NFL for its decision a few years back to schedule only divisional games on the season’s final weekend. Amid all of the criticism of the league, the commissioner, the officials, the replay system – should I go on? – this is one area where the NFL has hit the nail on the head. (But not too hard. The nail could get a concussion.) Filling Week 17 with nothing but divisional rivalries adds another layer of intensity to a slate of games that already has so much at stake for playoff-hungry teams.
For now, the NFL has pulled back the curtain enough to reveal the long and winding road the Steelers must travel on their quest for a seventh Lombardi Trophy. With just a week to go before the draft, the next steps in that journey are right around the corner.