If recent history tells us anything about the Pittsburgh Steelers, it's that the 2012 season will be another run at the AFC title.
After winning it all in 2005 and 2008, the Steelers failed to make the postseason in 2006 and 2009. Taking the AFC crown again in 2010, Pittsburgh went 12-4 in 2011, but was upset by the Denver Broncos in the Wild Card Round.
With key players intact on both sides such as James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Troy Polamalu, Mike Wallace and Heath Miller; quarterback Ben Roethlisberger just needs a bit more time to setup in the pocket.
The Steelers have another tough schedule ahead of them, but as we've come to learn from the NFL's most consistent franchise—don't ever count out Pittsburgh.
Week 1 9/1: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Denver Broncos 8:20 ET, NBC
Week 2 9/16: New York Jets vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 4:15 ET, CBS
Week 3 9/23: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Oakland Raiders 4:15 ET, CBS
Week 4 9/30: BYE WEEK
Week 5 10/7: Philadelphia Eagles vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 1 ET, FOX
Week 6 10/11: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Tennessee Titans 8:20 ET, NFL Network
Week 7 10/21: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals 8:20 ET, NBC
Week 8 10/28: Washington Redskins vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 1 ET, FOX
Week 9 11/4: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New York Giants 4:15 ET, CBS
Week 10 11/12: Kansas City Chiefs vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 8:30 ET, ESPN
Week 11 11/18: Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 8:20 ET, NBC
Week 12 11/25: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns 1 ET, CBS
Week 13 12/2: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens 4:15 ET, CBS
Week 14 12/9: San Diego Chargers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 1 ET, CBS
Week 15 12/16: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Dallas Cowboys 4:15 ET, CBS
Week 16 12/23: Cincinnati Bengals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 1 ET, CBS
Week 17 12/30: Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 1 ET, CBS
The AFC North remains one of pro football's most difficult divisions. Baltimore and Cincinnati will definitely contend for the division, and Cleveland battled Pittsburgh well in 2011. Expect the division to challenge the Steelers emphatically, along with the entire AFC West and NFC East.
There, the Steelers travel back to Denver and also face the Cowboys and Giants on the road. Other tough home games will be the Chiefs (top-five defense potential) and the Eagles. The Jets and Titans are the easier of games for Pittsburgh, but by no means are either a slouch.
The Steelers have the talent and experience to contend for the division throughout, but the difficult schedule from top-to-bottom will force Pittsburgh to fight for a second straight wild-card spot.
Most Pivotal Matchup
The Cincinnati Bengals are a team on the rise, and will be the main challenger to Pittsburgh for second place in the AFC North. Baltimore swept Pittsburgh in 2011, and the Ravens aren't slowing down in 2012.
Which team is Pittsburgh's most pivotal opponent in 2012?
Cincinnati on the other hand, finished with a top-10 defense last season and lost six games by eight points or less. Fielding an explosive offense that uses the electric connection of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, the Bengals' offense will only improve next fall.
Pittsburgh must remain ahead of Cincy in the division to solidify another postseason opportunity, because other AFC teams like Jacksonville, Buffalo and Kansas City will be in the hunt as well. If the Steelers drop back within their own division, say good-bye to the playoffs.
John Rozum on Twitter.