The end of the week brought breaking news for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
No, it was not another free agent signing—and thank goodness, it was not a new Ben Roethlisberger story.
“We won’t be playing in New Orleans,” team President Art Rooney II said on Thursday. “We have to be home that weekend because of the baseball schedule. Unless they wanted to play us away three weeks in a row—and I don’t think they’ll do that.”
The Steelers opened the 2009 season at home against the Tennessee Titans, but the scheduling conflict will prevent the NFL from matching up the past two Super Bowl champions in the season kickoff.
Not opening the season in New Orleans may not be a bad thing for the Steelers. Since the NFL began the Thursday night kickoff game, home teams have gone 7-1—including 6-0 when hosted by the defending Super Bowl champion. The Steelers defeated the Titans (2009) and the Miami Dolphins (2006) in two of those games.
According to Rooney, Pittsburgh suspects to “open at home and be on the road the next two weeks.”
This begs the question: Who will the Steelers open against?
With a potential Sunday afternoon or night game, there is almost no certainty as to who the Steelers will play to begin their season.
There are obviously the division choices. First, the Baltimore Ravens would be an intriguing Sunday night match-up. The Steelers-Ravens rivalry is one of the most heated in the league—and by far, the most physical. It would certainly be a ratings hit.
However, it is more likely the NFL saves this game for later in the season. Traditionally, this game has huge implications on the AFC North title and would be better served to be played down the stretch.
Cleveland and Cincinnati are both possibilities, as well. The Steelers have twice kicked off against the Browns in the past 10 seasons and have opened up against a division opponent five times—including in 2001 against former AFC Central rival Jacksonville.
This year’s conference opponents have some sizzle, as well.
The Oakland Raiders are an old rival of the Steelers—and they stunned the Steelers in Pittsburgh last season. While the Raiders are still rebuilding, this is always an exciting match-up between two classic teams.
A more modern conference rival are the New England Patriots. The Steelers lost twice to the Patriots at home in AFC Championship Games. As a rookie, Roethlisberger ended one of the Patriots undefeated streaks, and in 2008, the Steelers handed the Tom Brady-less Patriots a loss. They missed the playoffs by one game.
This is a great game on paper—and both teams are loaded with star power.
Pittsburgh also has the up-and-coming New York Jets on its home schedule. The Jets are what the Steelers used to be—a smashmouth running offense and a hard-hitting, physical defense. This would be a defensive battle to start the season with a fantastic match-up—the Steelers passing game against one of the best corners in the league in Darrelle Revis.
Pittsburgh’s NFC home schedule includes games against the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons. Neither team offers much excitement. Carolina is coming off of a down year and are starting new with Matt Moore. The Falcons had a disappointing season and will be hoping that Matt Ryan takes the next step to becoming a great quarterback.
If I had to predict what the home opener would be, I’d have to take into consideration if it was a Sunday afternoon or night game.
For a Sunday afternoon opener, I would expect the Steelers to play the Cleveland Browns or the Oakland Raiders. Both teams are rivals of the Steelers and would gain national interest for an afternoon game.
Between these two, I’d expect it to be a 1 p.m. game against the Browns. It would be the third time the Steelers opened against the Browns since 2000.
A Sunday night game would have to offer a game between two good teams with excellent players. If this is the case, look for the Steelers against the Jets or Patriots—most likely, the Patriots. Roethlisberger and Brady are two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL—and the best time to showcase these two is opening weekend.
So what is the final verdict? I think the NFL will have the Steelers begin their 2010 season against their division rival Cleveland Browns. The Jets, Patriots, and Ravens games are geared for prime-time games later in the season—when there isn’t complete focus on the spectacle that has become the NFL Kickoff Weekend.