The Pittsburgh Steelers have a ridiculously easy schedule in 2017—the fourth easiest, in fact, when measured by their opponents’ win percentage in 2014 (.453, to be exact). This represents a pretty favorable circumstance for a team that finished a game short of the Super Bowl last year and is expected to contend once again this season.
But, BUT, high expectations open the door for huge disappointments. Let’s take a gander at 11 offenders who could throw a wrench in Pittsburgh’s success in 2017:
(1) A.J. Green, (2) John Ross and (3) Tyler Eifert
The Cincinnati Bengals finished 6-9-1 in 2016, sure, but six of those losses were by a combined 24 points. In 2015, the Bengals finished 12-4 and Andy Dalton was an MVP candidate. Andy Dalton did regress in 2016 and the Bengals once again experienced a full-blown free agent exodus this offseaon, but given their five straight playoff appearances from 2011 through 2015, 2016 appears to be—at least in theory—an outlier.
Despite being unable to luxuriate in the services of Eifert and Green for the duration of 2016—both missed several games due to injuries—Dalton still amassed over 4,200 passing yards. He wasn’t 2015 Andy Dalton, yes, but 2015 Andy Dalton had access to Green and Eifert, who combined to score 23 touchdowns that season. This year, Cincinnati welcomes Eifert and Green back in the fold, along with 2017 first-round draft choice John Ross, whose vertical abilities should help open more of the field for his veteran teammates. Cincinnati’s passing attack will be a formidable unit in 2016.
(4) Aaron Rodgers and (5) Jordy Nelson
Rodgers had debatably the second-best season of his probable Hall of Fame career in 2016. This is very likely because Jordy Nelson rejoined the Packers after missing the entire 2015 season after tearing his ACL in the preseason. In 2016, Nelson—who, again, suffered a major, major knee injury and is in his 30s—also had perhaps the second-best season of his career, catching 97 passes for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns. Green Bay visits Pittsburgh in Week 12.
(6) John Harbaugh
The Steelers defeated Baltimore last Christmas on Antonio Brown’s Immaculate Extension, but before that, the Ravens had beaten Pittsburgh in four straight matchups. Count on Harbaugh to figure something out, even with a notable talent gap.
(7) Gregg Williams
We’ve already discussed the fact that the Cleveland Browns have made some serious progress on both sides of the ball this offseason. Being that Cleveland has been in rebuilding mode for almost two decades, this may be a hilarious bit of blind faith on our part.
However, the Browns have some young, athletic defensive players, including first-round draft picks Myles Garrett and Jabrill Peppers and recently-acquired former first-round pick Calvin Pryor. The Browns also have a notoriously-aggressive defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams, who will be looking to re-invent Cleveland’s identity.
(8) JJ Watt and (9) Jadaveon Clowney
Much like the Steelers, the Houston Texans are the beneficiaries of a so-so division and an easy schedule. This bodes well for a team that advanced to the Divisional Playoffs without the services of the best defensive player in the league and with Brock Osweiler at quarterback.
In Watt’s absence last season, Clowney established himself as one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL. Watt is healthy again and Osweiler was marooned to Cleveland, so the Texans have the makings of a Super Bowl-caliber team.
If the Texans live up to this hype, then their Christmas Day matchup with the Steelers could have huge playoff implications. There could potentially be a first-round bye on the line when these teams meet in Week 16, and a pair of game wreckers like Watt and Clowney playing on their speedy home turf could create problems for Pittsburgh’s offense.
(10) Tom Brady and (11) Bill Belichick
The Steelers have dropped five consecutive games to New England and seven of the past nine. This is not a good omen for Pittsburgh, who likely must surmount New England in the AFC Playoffs to make a run at the Super Bowl. Then again, if you believe in the law of averages, maybe the Steelers are due for a victory.