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For the 2023 Steelers, a strong start to the season will go a long way

A strong finish isn’t always enough if the start is so weak it can’t be overcome.

New Orleans Saints v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

I have often said that it’s not always how you start a season but how you finish. Many times the NFL team who got on a roll late in the season has gone on to win the Super Bowl. In 2022, the Kansas City Chiefs won their final five games before heading into the postseason. In 2021 the Los Angeles Rams won five of their last six games with their only loss being in overtime in week 18 against the San Francisco 49ers, a team they would then defeat in the NFC Championship Game. The 2020 season saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win their final four games coming out of their bye to march all the way to the Lombardi trophy.

While finishing the season on a high note is very useful, it doesn’t mean much if the beginning of the season doesn’t put the team in position to make the playoffs. Steelers fans know this too much as going 6–1 over the final seven games last season was not enough to erase their poor start and make the playoffs. So while playing well at the end of the season goes a long way in playoff success, starting the season strong enough to qualify for the playoffs is just as important.

To better illustrate how important it is for the Steelers to start strong in 2023, I went back and looked at every season since the NFL merger in 1970 and the results of their first six games of the season. Why did I choose six games? Although the first quarter of the season, generally defined as four games, tells the story, going two games farther can show how a team has responded after evaluating the first quarter of the season. A team could go 3–1 in their first four games but if they drop the next two their strong start has been erased.

Let’s start out looking at a team doing average over the first six games. Since 1970, the Steelers have gone 3–3 in their first six games 12 times. Of those 12 times, the Steelers have made the postseason six times and not qualified for the postseason six times. So when it comes to starting with just a .500 record over the first six games, it’s a coin flip of whether or not the Steelers have been able to go on and qualify for the postseason.

As for starting less than .500, the Steelers have only started a season 2–4 and made the postseason one time. This was the legendary 1976 Steelers defense who had an amazing streak of points given up over their last nine games which were all victories after the team started 1–4. Otherwise, a 2–4 or 1–5 start has not led to a playoff appearance for the Steelers.

The Steelers did have one season in which they started 3–2–1 where they were just above .500 which was in 2018. Unfortunately, the Steelers did not make the playoffs that season as that one tie kept them from qualifying.

When it comes to the Steelers starting 4–2, The Steelers have had five seasons where they started off with this record in their first six games and they did not go on to make the playoffs. The most recent season was in 2009 when after a 4–2 start the Steelers managed to only go 5–5 the rest of the way and missed the postseason. The other 13 times the Steelers started 4–2 they qualified for the postseason. The Steelers also qualified for the playoffs in 1974 when they started 4–1–1 and went on to win their first Super Bowl for the franchise.

The Steelers have also started 5–1 eight times since 1970 and have made the playoffs every season. The last two times the Steelers started a season 5–1 they went on to appear in the Super Bowl. Of course, since this time the Steelers had one of their two seasons where they started 6–0. The first time was in 1978 when they won the Super Bowl but the most recent was in 2020 when the Steelers won their first 11 games. Unfortunately, much like what was discussed earlier, the Steelers did not finish the season on a high note going 1–4 and then lost in the first round of the playoffs.

If anything, the cautionary tale of the 2020 season goes to show that starting strong is important to put the team in a good position, but finishing strong means even more. When the Steelers put themselves in a place to build on a strong start they typically qualify for the postseason.

Of course, a lot of these results depend on the team’s schedule. The 1976 Steelers had their toughest matchups of the season in their first six games and had a most favorable schedule the rest of the way. Last season, the Steelers toughest games fell in the first half of the season where things were lighter in the second half.

So what does that mean for the 2023 season? The Steelers first six games feature three home contests with three on the road with their bye week coming in Week 5. The Steelers open up with back-to-back home games against the San Francisco 49ers who appeared in the NFC Championship Game last year and then they host the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football. After road games in Las Vegas on Sunday night and the Houston Texans the following week, the Steelers return home to face the Baltimore Ravens. Following their bye week, the Steelers travel to Los Angeles to face the Rams for a 4:05 PM kickoff.

So can the Steelers take these first six games and set the tone properly for the 2023 season? Can they reach a 3–3 or 4–2 record and set them up well for the second half of the year? Could they really help their chances by going as high as 5–1 or are they looking at another 2-4 start? Make sure you leave your thoughts in the comments below.