6 Games Pittsburgh Steelers Must Win to Notch a Playoff Spot in 2013-14
The first hint that something was wrong with the 2012 Steelers came in Week 3 when they lost on the road to the Oakland Raiders. Then, just as Steelers fans convinced themselves that was only a bad dream, they lost in Week 6 to the Tennessee Titans.
Defeating inferior opponents stacks the building blocks of a playoff season. It's like a Democrat winning the the New England or a Republican winning the South in a presidential election. First they have to win the easy states. Then they go to work in the battleground states.
If the Steelers can take care of business in these six games, and then cobble together a few more wins, they'll be in good shape to play in January.
If they lose any of these games, it's time to start working on those mock drafts.
Week 1: Tennessee, Sept. 8
The Steelers must take advantage of what appears to be their easiest opener since they hosted the Houston Texans in 2008, the last year Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl.
This is the Steelers' first season opener at home since 2010, when they defeated the Atlanta Falcons 15-9 in overtime. They haven't lost a season opener at home since 2000.
This is no time to end that streak.
Titans running back Chris Johnson gained 1,243 yards last season. If the Steelers defense can handle Jamaal Charles (10 yards on seven carries in their preseason game against Kansas City), it should be able to handle Johnson.
After a 6-10 season in which the Titans allowed a league-high 471 points, Tennessee's defense still struggled during the 2013 preseason. According to The Miami Herald, the Titans had difficulty tackling and getting off the field on third down.
With or without Heath Miller and Le'Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense should be able to make some hay on Sunday and erase the bitter memory of their 26-23 loss at Tennessee last season.
Week 6: At New York Jets, Oct. 13
Like their Week 1 game against Tennessee, this game against New York is a painful reminder of one of the more embarrassing Steeler losses during the Mike Tomlin era.
The last time the Steelers visited the Jets was 2007. They had a 7-2 record, but lost 19-16 in overtime to a 1-8 Jets team quarterbacked by Kellen Clemens.
This time, it likely will be Geno Smith leading the New York. He was named the starter for the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, according to ESPN.com. Mark Sanchez is sidelined with a bruised shoulder.
If Smith is still calling the signals for the Jets in Week 6, the Steelers defense will be salivating like Pavlov's dogs.
Since Dick LeBeau took over as Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator in 2004, rookie quarterbacks are 2-16 against the Steelers, according to Behind the Steel Curtain.
The first rookie quarterback to beat a LeBeau-led Steelers defense was Troy Smith of the Baltimore Ravens. That was a meaningless season finale in 2007. Brandon Weeden became the second last season, but that had nothing to do with the defense. The Steelers turned the ball over eight times.
Geno Smith, a second-round draft pick, has "rookie" written all over him. He threw three interceptions in the Jets' third preseason game and stepped out of the end zone for a safety.
The Steelers will be coming off a bye week. If they lose to the Jets, they'll be in the running for Jadeveon Clowney.
Week 8, at Oakland, Oct. 27
The Steelers return to the Black Hole just in time for Halloween.
In last season's loss in Oakland, the Steelers were victimized by Carson Palmer before falling to the Raiders on a last-second field goal. This year, it will be either Terrelle Pryor or Matt Flynn under center for the Raiders.
They have three NFL starts between them.
Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle, citing two league sources, reported that Pryor will be the Raiders' opening-day starter. But that could change by Week 8.
Darren McFadden burned the Steelers for a 64-yard touchdown run last season, but he's had health problems and hasn't played a 16-game season in his career.
The Raiders are coming off a 4-12 season. They haven't had a winning season or made the playoffs since they went to the Super Bowl in 2002.
It would behoove the Steelers to get the job done in Oakland. They'll be coming off a home game against Baltimore and going to New England the week after their tilt with the Raiders.
Week 10: Buffalo, Nov. 10
After road trips to Oakland and New England in back-to-back weeks, this game against Buffalo begins a two-week homestand that appears to be a soft landing spot on the Steelers schedule.
EJ Manuel is the Bills' Week 1 starting quarterback, according to CBSSports.com. If the No. 16 overall pick still has the job in Week 10, he'd be faced with the task of becoming the first rookie quarterback to win at Heinz Field since Dick LeBeau became the Steelers' defensive coordinator in 2004.
The Bills, coming off a 6-10 season, are wallowing in the NFL's longest playoff drought. They haven't made the playoffs since 1999, and they haven't won at Pittsburgh since Jim Kelly was their quarterback.
Week 11: Detroit, Nov. 17
With the Steelers at New England in Week 9, at Cleveland in Week 12 and at Baltimore on Thanksgiving four days later, it's easy to overlook Weeks 10 and 11 on the schedule.
The Detroit Lions tumbled to 4-12 last season after going 10-6 and making the playoffs in 2011. The truth likely lies somewhere in between.
Calvin Johnson led the NFL with 122 receptions and 1,964 receiving yards in 2012. Matthew Stafford was second in the NFL with 4,967 passing yards.
Free agent Jason Jones and No. 5 overall draft pick Ziggy Ansah join Pro Bowler Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in the Lions' front four. That unit was instrumental in whipping the New England Patriots 40-9 at Detroit in Week 3 of the preseason, a hint that the Lions are poised to rebound from their 4-12 season.
Mike Tomlin has lost to only one NFC team at home. That was the defending Super Bowl-champion New York Giants in 2008.
The Steelers will have their hands full. But with two division road games in five days looming, they can't allow the Lions to win in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1955.
Week 17: Cleveland, Dec. 29
Even if Turner helps 30-year-old Brandon Weeden make a huge leap in his second year at quarterback, the Steelers have to defend their home turf against the Browns.
Since the Browns rejoined the NFL in 1999, the Steelers' only two home losses against them came in 1999 and 2003, the Steelers' only two losing seasons during that stretch. Pittsburgh went 6-10 in each of those years.
Losing at home to Cleveland does to a Steelers season what making the woman pay does to a guy's chances of getting a second date.
If the Steelers lose this regular-season finale, it's a safe bet they'll be cleaning out their lockers the next day.
The Playoff Formula
If the Steelers win all six of the aforementioned games, they would need to split their remaining 10 games to go 11-5.
Since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, only the 2008 New England Patriots have missed the playoffs with an 11-5 record.
In addition to handling the Browns at home, the Steelers would need three more wins in the AFC North. One way to do that would be to win for the 11th time in their last 13 trips to Cleveland, then split with the Ravens and Bengals. If they lose in Cleveland for the second straight year, they'd have to sweep the Ravens or Bengals.
That would give the Steelers nine wins, already an improvement over last season. Of their remaining non-divisional opponents, the most daunting are the New England Patriots in Week 9 and the Green Bay Packers in Week 16, both on the road.
Chalk those up as losses.
So to get to 11-5 the Steelers would have to defeat two of the following three opponents: the Chicago Bears in Week 3, the Minnesota Vikings in Week 4 or the Miami Dolphins in Week 14. The Steelers play the Bears and Dolphins at Heinz Field and the Vikings in London, where there might be a Terrible Towel or two waving.
All three are winnable games for the Steelers. Even if they slip up in one of them, they'll be in the driver's seat for a playoff berth as long as they have a winning record in the AFC North and win the six games they're supposed to win.