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How the end of the Steelers’ 2021 schedule will define their season

As the weather turns cold and snow begins to fall, the Steelers have no choice but to blaze a fire—or else melt miserably

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The Steelers’ 2020 season is a tale as old as time: after starting 11-0, the team went 1-4 in its last five regular season matchups before an ignominious defeat against the historically fallible Cleveland Browns.

What proved to be Pittsburgh’s Achilles’ heel a year ago was the end of its season, particularly December and January, in which the team went 2-3 (excluding postseason play). Sure, things went south because of fundamental team weaknesses—e.g., an inability to run the ball, an extremely short passing game, weak coverage from linebackers—but the Steelers could have performed better towards the back-end regardless.

With kickoff for the regular season imminent, eyes are gravitating towards Highmark Stadium, where the Steelers will battle with the formidable Buffalo Bills in Week 1.

In reality, though, Josh Allen’s tinted visor is just a prism deflecting light towards the Steelers’ Week 13 clash with the Baltimore Ravens.

When using opponents’ cumulative winning percentage from the prior season, the Steelers have the toughest schedule in the NFL (though I’m not a fan of using that, as teams change tremendously in just months). But when Ben Roethlisberger & Co. usher in the Ravens on December 5, they’ll begin the most challenging—and most decisive—stretch of their season.

In terms of just the Steelers’ end-of-year slate, December-onward is certainly the portion that figures to be Pittsburgh’s summit of sorts.

During those six weeks, the Steelers will endure teams that figure to be in contention each week as they face the Ravens (twice), Vikings, Titans, Chiefs and Browns.

Additionally, Pittsburgh consistently fluctuates between home and road games—no chance to build momentum with “Renegade” blaring and Terrible Towels twirling in consecutive showdowns. Playing at U.S. Bank Stadium on Thursday Night Football in Week 14 will be especially arduous, as the Steelers will have to travel and prepare on a short week fresh off a tenacious duel with Baltimore.

A silver lining of sorts is that the Steelers will presumably be battle-tested by this part in the year having played in raucous venues and matched up against leviathans in both conferences. But even if Pittsburgh enters Week 13 with an excellent mark, that span of games will unequivocally decide if Mike Tomlin’s team finishes anywhere from marginally above .500 to AFC North champs—both of which are in the realm of possibility.

Another reason those six contests will be key? In recent years, Tomlin’s team hasn’t performed admirably as the holiday season has rolled around.

In each of the last three campaigns, Pittsburgh has surged towards the finish line but has languidly collapsed, limping towards an early offseason one way or another. It’s imperative for Tomlin to tap into the reservoir of late success that he’s compiled earlier in his career, as the Steelers posted a winning record in December in six of seven seasons from 2011-17.

Although December may feel as hefty as a gargantuan snowball, January seems to provide some levity for the Steelers—especially Roethlisberger.

In his career, Roethlisberger has started five regular-season games in January. Believe it or not, Ben has gone a perfect 5-0 in such contests; his 96.2 quarterback rating in January is his second-highest in any month. Moreover, his winning percentage after a complete turn of the calendar is in stark contrast with his career mark in the prior timeframe, as #7’s rate of victory in December is his lowest in any month besides September.

When the NFL unveiled its newfangled 17-game season, many bemoaned the addition of a 17th game—something which delays the Super Bowl by around a week and renders records asymmetrical (sorry, Jeff Fisher—no more 8-8).

Yet for Roethlisberger and the Steelers, adding matchups in January may prove beneficial given the former’s success in such situations. Genuinely, one would not be out of line if arguing that the Steelers’ most paramount contests of the season are in Weeks 17 and 18 when the team opposes the Browns and the Ravens; with the AFC North title potentially on the line, Roethlisberger very well may be at his best in such end-of-season battles.

Of course, Steelers faithful could contend that the beginning of the 2021 season is the most crucial given Roethlisberger’s lackluster record in September (a .500 winning percentage) and the Steelers wishing to install Matt Canada’s offensive system—alongside Najee Harris—smoothly and quickly.

But as Tomlin would say (and likely has said), the Steelers must eschew topsy-turvy December play, lean on Roethlisberger’s durable anvil and forge ahead as the iron gets hot in this year’s waning moments.