Week 10 vs Carolina
What should happen: Listen — Thursday night NFL games are wholly disinteresting and woebegone affairs hated by players and fans alike, but this one, featuring a pair of legitimate contenders in Pittsburgh and Carolina, should actually be pretty entertaining!
What could happen: As anyone who’s ever played fantasy football can attest, Cam Newton has a proclivity for totally balling out, ascending to a plane of existence unreachable by the vast majority of his mortal contemporaries. When Newton finds this gear, jugulating opposing secondaries with pinpoint, laser-beam throws and plowing through opposing front-sevens like a runaway semitrailer, there’s not a defense in the world that can adequately contain him. Importantly, the Panthers have made a concentrated effort to improve the quality of players surrounding Newton, signing erstwhile Bronco and three-time Breakout Candidate of the Year C.J. Anderson and spending high draft picks on amorphous skill players like D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, and Christian McCaffrey. So there’s theoretically less pressure on Newton to carry the full brunt of the offensive load. In sum, Carolina boasts a well-rounded offensive unit buoyed by an explosive, multitalented quarterback only three years removed from a historically-efficient MVP campaign. The Steelers will have their work cut out for them.
Week 11 at Jacksonville
What should happen: The Steelers should have this matchup circled on their calendar. For all the noise that was made about the AFC being a two-horse race between Pittsburgh and New England last season, it was Jacksonville who wound up as the second-best team in the AFC, defeating the Steelers convincingly (in Heinz Field, no less!) on two separate occasions. If Pittsburgh hopes to win its seventh ring in 2018, it’ll have to face Jacksonville at least once, and possibly twice.
What could happen: Jacksonville could simply be a better team than Pittsburgh. The thing about the Jaguars that’s so insanely frustrating is just how well they match up with the Steelers—their offensive game plan is built around second-year running back Leonard Fournette, a bank vault who runs a 4.4 forty, which allows them to utilize play-action passes and misdirection runs to great effect. The defense, meanwhile, is stacked at all three levels, including a deep, monolithic defensive line, a stable of speedy and athletic linebackers, and a secondary that features the best cornerback duo in football.
Week 12 at Denver
What should happen: The Broncos probably will not be very good this year, whereas the Steelers should probably be very good! Ergo, the Steelers should win!
What could happen: Oh, this game is on the road? In that case, the Steelers will probably lose 30-27 or something.
Week 13 vs Los Angeles Chargers
What should happen: Lots of points should be scored. The Chargers are a trendy playoff contender, due in no small part to their formidable offense, particularly the passing attack.
What could happen: The Chargers’ defense could dominate the game. Los Angeles has quietly assembled a very exciting defensive unit, including what might be the league’s best pass-rushing duo in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. Their secondary, which was one of the league’s best outfits last season, should be even better following the addition of a healthy Jason Verrett and elite rookie prospect Derwin James, a player who a non-zero number of scouts pegged as a top-five talent in the 2018 NFL Draft. Given the Chargers’ woes against the run last season, I’d expect Pittsburgh to feature Le’Veon Bell—however, if LA jumps out to an early lead, airmailing a comeback could prove difficult.
Week 14 at Oakland
What should happen: The Steelers should amass a bunch of yards and score a bunch of points, because beyond Khalil Mack, Oakland’s defense is kinda butt.
What could happen: The ineptitude of the Raiders’ defense could be irrelevant, because their offense has a lot of...interesting, high-upside players. This I guess is an amiable way of saying that virtually every skill player on the offensive side of the ball has something to prove: Derek Carr wants to prove his MVP-caliber 2016 campaign wasn’t a fluke and that he’s worth every dime of his $125 million contract; Doug Martin wants to prove he’s capable of being the same kind of impact player he was in 2012 and 2015 (and, if any firm conclusions can be drawn from the Muscle Hamster’s career output to this point, he’s due for around 1,400 yards this season); Amari Cooper wants to prove that he’s a bona fide No. 1 receiver; newly-signed Jordy Nelson is seeking a rebound after being ousted from Green Bay; Martavis Bryant, formerly of the Steelers, is also pursuing a career revival — this team is interesting! Plus, the incomparable Jon Gruden is (perhaps fittingly) coaching this goofy crew, so that’ll be fun. If everything comes together, the Raiders are looking down the barrel of 19-0.
Week 15 vs Patriots
What should happen: Statistically speaking, the Steelers should win one of these games eventually.
What could happen: Pittsburgh’s damned efforts to surmount these insuperable Patriots could remain rooted in futility which, honestly, would be a pretty big bummer. Getting to watch Tom Brady’s historical reign of utter dominance has been cool and all, but it definitely sucks that it’s been at the expense of my favorite team. This is typical yinzer rhetoric, but the Steelers would have 10 Super Bowls by now if not for this New England team. I am so sad.
For this game, the Steelers will probably keep it very, very close, only to lose at the last second because Rob Gronkowski distracted Sean Davis with a 69 joke.
Week 16 at Saints
What should happen: A fun game between a pair of evenly-matched, offense-heavy division leaders.
What could happen: Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara could happen! This is a very misguided and potentially misinformed take, but I think if we’re judging the “GOAT NFL backfield duo” solely on said duo’s collective playmaking aptitude, Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara very well could be the best backfield duo in NFL history. I wanna be ahead of this, because I remember many years ago former Golden State Warriors coach (and current TNT color guy) Mark Jackson claimed that his very young, very unproven backcourt duo composed of Klay Thompson and Steph Curry would wind up being the best NBA backcourt ever—and we, the idiotic public, rebuked this lofty declaration. Sure enough, five years and three NBA championships later, Jackson proved to be spot-on with his analysis. Against Pittsburgh, I think we’ll see Ingram and Kamara each cross the 1,500-all-purpose yards and 10 rushing-receiving touchdown thresholds in this game.
Week 17 vs Bengals
What should happen: A de facto bye. For the third year in a row, the Steelers should have the AFC North in hand and be resting their starters.
What could happen: A de facto AFC North championship game—or worse, a de facto Wild Card game. It isn’t difficult to envision a scenario in which the Steelers “regress” to 10-6 or something despite keeping the core pieces of their roster more or less intact. For one thing, the AFC North—as well as the AFC in generally—should be significantly more competitive. This could prevent the Steelers from coasting to 13-3 as they did a year ago. Notable, too, is the fact that the Steelers posted a handful of wildly improbable and borderline miraculous comeback-victories last season, including one over the Bengals. So, I think a more competitive AFC North, coupled with maybe two of those close games falling the other way, might foreclose the luxury of allowing the Steelers to rest their starters.