We've known for several months now that the Steelers would be facing a slew of strong teams in 2015. Among their opponents are the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots and the NFC Conference Champion Seattle Seahawks. Based on 2014 winning percentage, it is the most difficult schedule in the NFL this season.
It's not without precedent that they have the hardest schedule, and it's also not without hope. In 2008, the Steelers faced a historically difficult schedule when their opponents boasted a previous-season combined winning percentage of .590. That team won the Super Bowl.
If the team wants to replicate that feat, they will have to find a way to win several key games.
Week 4 vs. Baltimore Ravens
For the third consecutive season, the Steelers will find themselves in a Thursday-night matchup against the Ravens, their biggest rival. For the last two years, that hasn't turned out well for Pittsburgh. In 2013, it was a 22-20 loss on Thanksgiving night. Last year, it was a 26-6 defeat that was even worse than the score indicates.
But both of those games were in Baltimore, and last year's game was in week two with nearly no time to adjust after the first game of the season. This year, the game is in Pittsburgh, and it's Baltimore who play another division game a few days prior. A win here puts the team in good shape in the division going forward. Expect a slugfest, but expect the home team to win.
Week 7 at Kansas City Chiefs
This will be the Steelers' fourth road game in seven weeks, and leads into a three-game home stretch. With a tough week-one contest against the Patriots, the Steelers could find themselves playing catch-up as the visiting team. Two winnable road games will be played between weeks one and seven, against the St. Louis Rams and the San Diego Chargers. Winning those two games, plus beating the Chiefs, would put the team in a very favorable position with a road record of 3-1 or better.
The teams have played a regular season every year but one since 2011, and Pittsburgh has won every one of them. Two have been played in Arrowhead Stadium, and all of them have been close games.
Week 9 vs. Oakland Raiders
Ben Roethlisberger has played the Oakland Raiders five times in his career. He has lost four of them -- to quarterbacks like Andrew Walter and Terrelle Pryor. Whether it is the trip to the west coast (though he did lose at home in 2009) or just something unexplainable, the Raiders are Ben's kryptonite.
But this game goes beyond historic statistics. It falls right in the middle of a three-game home stretch -- the only time during the entire season when the Steelers play consecutive home games. Their other opponents are the Arizona Cardinals and the Cincinnati Bengals. All three games should be very winnable, and it's critical to their post-season hopes that they do just that. They need to stack as many wins as possible, because of a brutal late-season stretch where four of their final six are road games, and five of those six games are against 2014 playoff teams.
Week 15 at Denver Broncos
Maybe it's something about the AFC West in general.
While Roethlisberger has favorable records against most teams, the Broncos are right up there with the Raiders as teams he has had trouble beating. In six career games, Ben has lost four. Strangely, both victories have been in Denver, but then again, he's only ever had one shot at them in Pittsburgh.
This is the final home game of the season for Pittsburgh, so it is critical they escape with a win. Peyton Manning is possibly singing his swan song in 2015, and the rigors of another long season could be taking its toll on him by mid-December. One can only hope.
Week 16 at Baltimore Ravens
The AFC North may very well come down to this game. Hopefully, the Steelers will have a win against the Ravens already under their belts, taking some of the pressure off. If not, though, this game could be a win-or-go-home scenario for Pittsburgh, due in part to their tough opponents and the ridiculous schedule to close the season.
Due to the extreme increase in Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's salary for the 2016 season, there is at least a possibility this could be the last time the two quarterbacks go head-to-head as division rivals.
An interesting note: the Ravens have not beaten the Steelers in December since 2007, a stretch of four games.