The Pittsburgh Steelers will have a very intriguing slate of games during the 2012 season. Some seem like relatively easy contests (although that's seldom the case). Some seem like difficult mountains to climb. Some are hard to categorize now, but will become better defined as the season approaches.
Here's a look at how the games should rank from easiest to most difficult.
Maybe it’s wrong, but the Redskins feel like they are almost a punchline nowadays.
They have one of the league’s most untalented offenses. The only possible bright spot coming next season is that either Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III will be taking the reigns at quarterback.
Defensively, the Redskins are losing ground. They don’t have a particularly vicious pass rush or a particularly successful run defense. The Steelers could march right over them if they so choose.
This should be the team’s biggest victory of the year, akin to facing Seattle or St. Louis last season when they were completely over-matched.
The Browns don’t usually get much of a turnout for games against Pittsburgh. From their own fans, that is. Steelers fans who can’t find tickets to get into Heinz Field travel up to Cleveland once a year to see their beloved team in person.
The Steelers often play better in Cleveland; it almost seems like another home game.
The Browns don’t pose much of a threat really, but they are almost always a trap game for the Steelers, who never seem to remember to take their rivals from the shore of Lake Erie seriously.
This should be slightly easier than facing the Browns in the big ketchup bottle.
There’s no real point in saying that the Steelers/Browns games will be boring. They won’t be. No matter how bad the Browns have been over the years, they almost always show up for games against Pittsburgh.
The Browns also almost always show up better on the road, away from their disenchanted and disheartened fans. They want badly to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh just to flex their muscles a little bit.
Unfortunately for them, that rarely happens.
This game might be slightly more difficult than the road version, but not by much.
On paper, the Raiders look like a pretty dangerous team. They should have won the AFC West last year after acquiring Carson Palmer to throw the ball. Unfortunately, the games do not happen on paper. When the Raiders took the field, they were usually awful.
The Steelers have been great against the sad-sack Raiders in recent years, cooling another great 1970s rivalry in the process.
Pittsburgh should have the upper hand again. While Palmer has good numbers against the Steelers overall, his performance last year makes you wonder just how effective he can be moving forward.
If he’s that bad again, this will be a walk for Pittsburgh.
Tyler Palko and the Chiefs made this matchup uncomfortable last year. The Steelers played some of their worst football in Kansas City and barely escaped a Chiefs team that was playing out the string.
The most interesting story in this game should be that Todd Haley, the Steelers new offensive boss, will be facing the Chiefs, who fired him as head coach soon after his team fell to Pittsburgh in prime time.
This is still a trap game and the Chiefs—now under Romeo Crennel—figure to be a more difficult out as long as they are healthy. They were decimated in 2011. If that doesn’t repeat itself, this game could be just as interesting.
The Titans didn’t land Peyton Manning and now it remains to be seen what they expect from Jake Locker in the future. I would predict that he’ll be given every chance to win the starting job in training camp. I also think he’ll accomplish that.
The Titans have a playoff-caliber roster even without Manning calling the shots. They were 9-7 and missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker last season.
The Steelers usually play Tennessee well and have won many of the most recent matchups. This won’t be an easy game, but the Titans don’t yet have the receivers to strike fear into a defense.
This means that Chris Johnson will be the focal point. The Steelers almost always have his number.
The rivalry that defined the 1970s has cooled considerably in recent years. The Cowboys haven’t been to a Super Bowl since defeating Pittsburgh after the 1995 season. The Steelers have been the better team in the more than 15 years since, winning two titles and being a perennial playoff team.
Still, this game has some interesting aspects. The Cowboys seem like a team that is primed to move back into contention. They just missed the playoffs last season and have seemingly improved.
The Steelers still look like the better team overall and should have the more reliable defense, but this game could get uncomfortably close with a high score.
Should the threat of Tim Tebow push them higher on this list? Not in New York.
While I do believe Tony Sparano—the new Jets coordinator—will attempt to use Tebow in a wildcat-type system to compliment Mark Sanchez, I don’t think it will make a huge difference in the Steelers’ game plan or execution.
The Jets would love to get past the Steelers after losing to them in the 2010 AFC Championship Game. The Steelers would love to continue putting the Jets in their place. This will be a tug of war between two top defensive units.
The running games for both teams will be huge here. I expect passing to be at a premium thanks to a superior Jets secondary and an inferior New York passing game.
Coming to Pittsburgh is daunting for anyone. The Bengals handle it better than a lot of teams. They’ve had a surprising amount of success against Pittsburgh within these contests. They always play Pittsburgh close.
This is a classic trap game in some ways. The Bengals are a team that has been a joke for much of the last two decades. That’s no longer the case. Andy Dalton had a surprisingly good rookie season in 2011 and should be able to build on that in 2012.
The key is stopping him from throwing the ball. Offensively, the Steelers also have to get their running game going to control the clock some. How they will be able to do that will be determined by exactly what they do at the position to help out presumptive starter Isaac Redman.
If this was hockey, you’d have to put this down as the most difficult game of the year. The Penguins and Flyers do not like each other and have turned their current playoff series into a slug fest on and off the scoreboard.
In football, the two teams rarely play during the regular season. They are common preseason mates, but you can’t judge much off of those results.
The Steelers draw the Eagles at home this year in early November. The Eagles are in the same boat as the Chargers. Playoff success saves the coach. Regular season failure probably dooms him. The Eagles have the talent to compete with anyone. It just didn’t show up for many games in 2011.
The Steelers will likely be ready for this kind of game. The good news is if their run defense comes into to play, the Eagles will struggle. Their receivers don’t really scare anyone (unless DeSean Jackson grows up before the season starts).
I wasn’t sure really which Bengals game would be more difficult. The contests are usually pretty even each season. One team usually does well in both even if the win/loss column doesn’t usually show that.
The Steelers are also usually pretty good against the Bengals. Assuming that any road game is more difficult than a home game, I’ll put the Bengals at home down as the more difficult match.
For the Steelers, this will be all about containing the Andy Dalton to A.J. Green connection. Stopping that will stop the Bengals. If those two can hook up regularly, the Steelers will get into a shooting match.
The Bengals aren’t chumps anymore, so the Steelers need to make sure they view them as contenders. If not, they’ll get trapped by a team on the rise.
The opener isn’t as high as most people might think on my list. The reasoning behind it is simple.
I don’t buy the hype at all. I think that this will actually be a game the Steelers should win if they show up ready to play.
Peyton Manning doesn’t have a great record against the Steelers. Aside from some limited success, he struggled to beat the Steelers while he was with the Colts. He couldn’t beat them when it counted most in the 2005 playoffs.
He’ll be playing his first game in more than a year against a defense that devours quarterbacks who are slow of foot. Since Manning is no Michael Vick, he could find himself hitting the dirt often.
The Steelers also have some big motivation for this game: revenge for that shocking playoff exit at the hands of Tim Tebow and the Broncos last January.
The Steelers and Chargers don’t get many matchups during the regular season, but their contests are always intense and interesting.
This game figures to be difficult this season because the Chargers and head coach Norv Turner are going to be in make or break mode. A playoff appearance and, more importantly, some playoff success, might save Turner’s (and GM A.J. Smith’s) job.
Another dud and they’ll be swept out.
The Steelers will be up for this game as well. The Chargers are one of the few AFC teams on their schedule this season that can pose a really serious threat. This is a game the Steelers will want to win. They usually do well in those games.
Joe Flacco doesn’t do well against the Steelers at Heinz Field, particularly when Ben Roethlisberger is his opponent. That doesn’t mean that this game is a gimme.
In fact, these contests almost always end with a late field goal or touchdown.
I’ve never thought that the Ravens could defeat the Steelers twice in the same season. The two teams just play it too close. The breaks can’t always go one way. Of course, who would have predicted the Steelers’ dominance over the Ravens before last season?
Assuming the Steelers can’t escape the Ravens in Baltimore, I do think they’ll get a win here. This is a prime time game for a reason and the Steelers rise to the occasion when playing under the lights.
If you’d rank facing the defending Super Bowl champions any lower than right near the top, it would be a crime. The Giants may not be the darlings of any regular season, but they aren’t a team you can sleep on ever.
Consider that they won the Super Bowl with several key injuries, particularly on defense. Next, consider that they return an almost intact lineup in 2012. Finally, they have one of the league’s elite passers in Eli Manning.
This game isn’t going to be easy regardless of any other consideration, but it is also a road game. The Steelers do travel well and play the Giants well, but this might be a tough nut to crack for them. It will definitely be one of the top games this season.
Why is this game the toughest on the schedule? Quite simply, this is where everything that could go wrong did last season.
The Ravens have always believed that they would be a Super Bowl team if not for the Steelers, but they weren’t able to do that in 2011 after the Steelers were eliminated and after beating them twice during the regular season.
Baltimore always is up for Steelers games and that emotion makes them a tough opponent to face, particularly in their own house. I would say this game is as tough as it gets. It has everything: hostile territory, openly hostile opponent and the charge that comes with a rivalry.