There’s never an easy matchup in the NFL. While we’d like to pretend there are unbeatable teams and unwinnable games, the “any given Sunday” mantra rears its head all too often throughout the season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are always a dangerous team, but last season’s shortcomings exposed some glaring weaknesses that must be addressed this offseason. As teams like the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns continue to improve, so too must the Steelers if they hope to keep pace in the AFC North.
Every divisional matchup is crucial to making the playoffs in the NFL. The importance of those games goes without saying.
Non-divisional matchups make up almost two-thirds of the schedule, and it’s some of those games we will focus on—specifically the three non-divisional contests against playoff squads of a year ago.
The Steelers have the 11th-easiest schedule in the league this year (per ESPN.com), but don’t be fooled by last season’s records. These games will be crucial matchups for Pittsburgh in its quest for a seventh Lombardi Trophy.
All three non-divisional contests against 2012 playoff squads will take place away from the friendly confines of Heinz Field. Each of them will be must-win affairs.
Traveling to Foxborough is never a pleasant experience, either. Two of the Patriots' losses came at home last season, but they did manage to beat Denver, Houston and Indianapolis in Gillette Stadium without much trouble.
While it’s hard to predict what each team will look like when the season begins, Pittsburgh should already be expecting a heavy dose of Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in this contest. With Ryan Mundy, Will Allen and Keenan Lewis departing in free agency, the Steelers have to focus on adding some depth prior to the season in order to stave off the AFC’s elite passing attacks.
New England and Pittsburgh last squared off in 2011 in a 25-17 Steelers victory at Heinz Field. A lot has changed since that time, but one things remains the same: Pittsburgh can’t afford to lose to a perennial AFC powerhouse like the Patriots if it hopes to make the playoffs in 2013.
Which non-divisional matchup will be the most challenging for the Steelers this season?
The Steelers haven’t faced the Packers since a fateful Sunday in 2011 that saw Green Bay leave Cowboys Stadium with a Lombardi Trophy. There could be some bad blood brewing between these two teams when they square off this season.
Apart from a Super Bowl rematch, this game also presents an opportunity for the Steelers to gain some momentum and prove they are still an elite team—not that there’s really much doubt. Pittsburgh’s front office is one of the best in the league at infusing its roster with winning talent.
The same can be said for the Packers, though. Despite a poor defensive showing in the playoffs last year, Green Bay doesn’t have a lot of holes to fill this offseason. If Ted Thompson can keep his team moving in the right direction, this matchup will invariably be one of the most exciting of the season.
Like their matchup with New England, the Steelers will be facing one of the most dominant passers in the NFL. If this game happens to take place early in the season, a Pittsburgh win could provide a ton of momentum for a strong 2013 season.
The NFL picked a good matchup to showcase in London this year.
The Steelers and Vikings travel across the pond for a September 29 showdown that has the makings of a hard-hitting affair with early playoff implications. The AFC North and NFC North races are typically two of the tightest in the NFL, and both teams may find themselves fighting for a wild-card spot by the end of the season.
Facing Adrian Peterson in the fourth week of the season will be a good test for a Steelers’ run defense that was uncharacteristically docile in 2012. Pittsburgh still finished second against the run last season, but it lacked the gritty, hard-nosed attitude that has been its staple for so long. This will be a statement game as much as it will be a must-win contest.