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Steelers 2014 schedule looks to be a tough battle

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The Steelers 2014 schedule was released last night, giving us full details on when and where games would be played. At a glance, the Steelers schedule appears to be a hard one, with 5 play-off teams from last year in the mix. The Steelers may struggle to bounce back from an 8-8 season.

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Predicting a team's chance of success based off a schedule on paper may well be the ultimate fan fallacy, but it is one we all fall prey to.

Glancing up and down the 2013 schedule I was grinning ear to ear, almost certain the Steelers were going to go at least 10-6. But as we are all too aware that wasn't the case. The quality of a team in December is rarely what it was supposed to be in April. One need look no further than the dismal seasons enjoyed by the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans as proof of that. The list of things that can wreck a season is extensive, injuries being the principal culprit.

Likewise a team can rise from the ashes like the Kansas City Chiefs of 2013, scuppering any predictions that were based around them. And of course, there is a tendency to inflate your own team's ability, much like I did in 2012 and 2013.

So given all that, it's clear that schedule based predictions are far from an exact science. But it's April, we're all starved for things to talk about, and it's to look down the table and see win after win.

Only this time, I'm not filled with the characteristic confidence of a fan in April.

The Panthers, Texans, Colts, Falcons, Chiefs and Saints are six teams straight from the off that give me cause for concern. The Panthers are never going to be an easy out, possessing a fantastic defense and an offense that did just enough (sound familiar) to win often last season.

I know I used the Texans and Falcons as an example of a season gone awry above, but I think it's a fair to assume, especially in the Falcons case, a return to loftier heights is on the cards. The Texans have the two of the better defensive players in the league in Cushing and Watt (obviously), as well as two dynamic receivers, a quality running back, one of the better offensive lines and the number one slot in the draft. The Falcons have enough firepower on offense to stand toe to toe with Napoleonic France, never mind the Steelers middle of the road defense.

The Saints, Colts and Chiefs speak for themselves as three play-off calibre teams. The Colts and Chiefs only stand to get better, and although the Saints suffered a few cap casualties in the off-season a team with Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and Sean Payton will always be dangerous.

So those are the "obvious" teams that look to provide a stern challenge for the Steelers, but when you look at the "winnable" and "easy" games, things don't get much better. The Buccaneers, Jaguars, Jets and Titans fall into the category of definitely winnable games in April, but I won't be gambling the house on the results of these games.

First of all, a team like the Steelers have no right to lay claim to winnable or easy games against lesser competition. If anything, we are now the team that other fans are circling off as winnable, if not that then they are already chalking one up in the win column.

The Bucs have boatloads of talent on both sides of the ball, and now that they are clear of the oppressive Shiano regime and under the guidance of defensive guru Lovie Smith maybe they'll put it together. Questions at quarterback could sink them, but at any rate I won't dismiss them.

The Jets were the very definition of a Jekyll and Hyde team last season, but they still boast an effective defense, with the best 3-4 defensive end tandem in the league as well as what appears to be a bolstered running game with the addition of Chris Johnson. It's certainly a winnable game, we beat them with relative ease in 2013 ,but it's not in the bank.

Everything about the Titan's screams win, but the Steelers have lost two winnable games in 2012 and 2013 to this very team, so discounting them would be foolish.

Gus Bradley has done a good job with the Jaguars, taking his energy and enthusiasm from Seattle and transporting it to Florida. However, I don't think the Jaguars are there yet. This is the only game on the schedule I'm prepared to unequivocally say the Steelers should win

Divisional games are extremely difficult to predict, because funny things can and often do seem to happen. This is amplified by the fact that the difference in talent between all the AFC North teams is, on paper at least, wafer thin.

You would like to chalk up two wins against the Browns, but that team has a lot of individual talent and two first round picks to play with. As Neal Coolong rightly pointed out, playing the Ravens coming off a short week for the third season in a row is just plain nonsense. But above and beyond that, the statistics for the last 16 games the Ravens and Steelers have played indicate an astoundingly close rivalry, there's never been any less of a sure thing. The Bengals can be seen as the cream of the AFC North crop but the ass whoopin' the Steelers handed down to them last season after losing the first tilt clearly demonstrates that this matchup is still absolutely in the balance.

Things get a little more optimistic when looking at the home/away splits. Heinz Field has not exactly been a fortress in the mould of Century Link Field the last couple of years, but playing a team at home has innumerable benefits. Taking on the Colts, Chiefs, Texans and Saints in Pittsburgh will be a huge boost in what presumes to be the Steelers most challenging match ups. Taking the Saints away from their precious dome in particular could prove the difference.

The Bucs at home could push a game that isn't necessarily a sure thing into the favour of the Steelers, whereas travelling to New York and Tennessee puts more strain on two potentially winnable games. The same could also be said of having to play in Jacksonville. Playing in Atlanta and Carolina is obviously not ideal, and makes two apparently very tough fixtures even harder.

As I've said before schedule predictions are so far from accurate it's almost a pointless exercise, but that is not going to stop anyone from trying. I expect the Steelers to win at least 4 divisional games, either both against the Browns or sneaking one in Baltimore or Cincinnati. Combine that with presumptive wins over the Buccaneers and the Jaguars and I'm fairly confident the Steelers will get a minimum of 6 wins in 2014. With two losses in the division, and my expectations of losses away to the Falcons and the Panthers, the Steelers are sitting on a hypothetical 6-4.

Above that, I honestly couldn't say what will happen. Four home games against the Colts, Texans, Chiefs and Saints will provide a statement about where this team is at, as will the two road games against the Jets and Titans. A good team, that is a play-off calibre team, will come away 4-2 from these 6 matches. But to be honest, I don't trust the Steelers to come away 3-3, never mind 4-2.

Based on my own gut feelings about where teams will be next year, I'm cautiously pessimistic of the Steelers reaching the hallowed grounds of 10-6; 6-10 seems just as likely a scenario.