The AFC will be very competitive in 2012, and it will not be easy for the Pittsburgh Steelers to make the playoffs.
Pittsburgh’s task becomes exceptionally difficult, as two of its AFC North opponents made the playoffs last season and are primed for return trips this year.
The Baltimore Ravens are always in contention for the division behind a strong defense, while a young Cincinnati Bengals squad will be looking to take the next step in their growth and challenge for a division title.
But the Steelers will not back down and are a good bet to make a push for the playoffs once again.
Since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007, the Steelers have averaged 11 wins, and they have only missed the playoffs once.
Pittsburgh has won 12 games three times under Tomlin, but if it wins at least 10 games this season, it should be enough to earn it a playoff berth.
Here are 10 games that the Steelers have to win to make the playoffs.
Regardless of what happens against the Broncos, the Steelers must win the game against the Jets.
New York is an interesting team that is under a microscope now that Tim Tebow is in town.
The circus that surrounds the Jets will not go away all season, and the Steelers do not want to get caught up in it. It will be tough not to since Tebow helped beat the Steelers in the playoffs last year.
So why must the Steelers win this game?
Well, if they lose the opener, the Steelers do not want to be any worse than 1-1 to start the year. If they win the opener, then a 2-0 start has them well on their way.
More importantly, it would put a borderline playoff team a game behind them.
It is tough to win in the NFL, and there are certainly no easy wins.
However, there are some games that are easier than others. That is exactly what the Steelers will experience when they play the Oakland Raiders.
Pittsburgh is the more talented team, and it should be counted on as a win. However, it must travel across the country and play in hostile territory.
The Steelers cannot allow the travel and crowd to impact this game. Instead, they must take advantage with their familiarity with Carson Palmer and get a win.
Pittsburgh needs to pile up wins against non-playoff teams whenever possible, and this should be one of those games.
The rookie sensation Robert Griffin III should be starting for the Washington Redskins when they face the Steelers, and that will be great news for Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh’s defense likes to feast on rookie quarterbacks. No matter how talented Griffin is, he is still a rookie and Dick LeBeau will devise a scheme to take advantage of this.
Griffin will also have to play in Heinz Field, which will make the task of defeating the Steelers even tougher.
Even though this is an NFC opponent, the Redskins should be one of the weakest opponents that the Steelers face all year. That makes this a must-win game.
Pittsburgh will have an unusual advantage when it plays the Kansas City Chiefs.
Having Kansas City's former head coach as the offensive coordinator will provide the Steelers with an extra advantage when preparing for this game.
Todd Haley will be able to provide the Steelers with inside details about the Chiefs' roster, scheme and tendencies.
While the Chiefs could take advantage of knowing what Haley likes to do on offense, they cannot account for the pure talent of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The inside information provided by Haley should make a difference and benefit the Steelers. If they do not win this game, it will be a lost opportunity.
The Steelers finished with a 4-2 record in the AFC North last season.
While it wasn't a bad record, it wasn't good enough to win the division.
The two losses to the Baltimore Ravens not only cost the Steelers a division title, but also a much needed first-round bye.
A sweep against the AFC North would virtually guarantee the Steelers not only a playoff spot, but a division crown and one of the top seeds in the conference.
It won't be easy, but the Steelers will have their opportunities to win all six matchups.
The Cleveland Browns have a number of young players expected to contribute at key positions this year, making them vulnerable.
Not only should the Steelers beat the Browns, they should blow them out.
The Steelers swept the Bengals last season and will look to do the same this year. They will just have to rattle the usually calm Andy Dalton.
While the Steelers were blown out by the Ravens in the season opener last year, they had a chance to win the meeting at Heinz Field, but blew a late lead as they allowed Joe Flacco to march down the field for the eventual game-winning touchdown.
The Ravens and Bengals will be challenging for the division title once again this season. That is why any win over these teams would give the Steelers a huge edge in the battle for a playoff spots.
The rest of the Steelers games include away games against the Denver Broncos, Tennessee Titans, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, as well as home games against the Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers.
All six of these teams should be challenging for playoff spots this year. It isn’t unusual to drop multiple games to playoff contenders—it’s actually expected.
However, the Steelers will be very competitive in all six of these games and will be in contention to win each of them.
If the Steelers split these games and win the previous 10 mentioned, that would give them 13 wins and a likely one- or two-seed in the AFC.
If they do the completely unexpected and lose all six of them, they would still have enough wins to make the playoffs.