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Improved play in the AFC North should be the Steelers top priority in 2016

The 2015 season just began, and when the Steelers were forced to play in the Wild Card round of the AFC Playoffs, the reprieve of the bye week could be as simple as improving their play within the division.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers offseason in underway, and while fans and experts everywhere talk about free agency, who could be added to the roster and the upcoming NFL Draft, there is one area of improvement the Steelers must address if they want to build upon the foundation laid by the 2015 Steelers.

For the second consecutive season, the Steelers have had to play in the AFC Wild Card game, even after winning the AFC North division in 2014. Despite them winning in the Wild Card round this year, the team would have desperately benefited from having a bye week and being able to rest prior to playing in the divisional round.

So, what needs to change for the team to get over the hump and not just host a playoff game, or games, but to possibly get a first round bye?

As everyone attempts to dissect what needs to improve to help the Steelers, you should look no further than to improve their play in the AFC North as their top priority. You can talk about player additions, upcoming opponents and the schedule release in Spring, but the Steelers need to take care of business against their most common opponents.

This year the Steelers finished 3-3 in the AFC North. They swept the Cleveland Browns, split with the Cincinnati Bengals and were swept by the Baltimore Ravens. This was the first time the Steelers were swept by an AFC North opponent since the Ravens did the same thing to them in the 2011 season. However, despite being swept by their arch rivals that year, the team swept the Browns and Bengals to finish their division record at 4-2. In fact, in the past 5 seasons, the Steelers have only finished with a .500 record twice, in 2015 and 2012.

Some might be reading this and thinking, "There are 16 games, these 6 shouldn't mean any more than any other.", but such a sentiment couldn't be further from the truth. Games against division opponents carry more weight as they are not only division games and can alter the standings in a single week, but they are conference games which could help decided tie breakers in the race for the playoffs.

For an example, look at the 2015 season. The Steelers beat the Browns twice, which isn't a shock, but look at their losses to the Ravens and the Bengals. The first Ravens loss was on Thursday Night Football and Mike Vick's first start in the black and gold. Some would say, and I would agree, if Josh Scobee is able to make just one of his two missed field goals the Steelers leave Heinz Field with a win, rather than a loss. Then look at the Bengals game at Heinz Field. Ben Roethlisberger had just returned from his knee injury and due to some key turnovers the Bengals were able to escape with a win after A.J. Green's go-ahead touchdown catch. Then came the abysmal performance in M&T Bank Stadium. Coming off wins over the Bengals and Denver Broncos, the Steelers literally laid an egg and lost control over their playoff destiny by losing to Ryan Mallett.

Next year, the AFC North is paired with the AFC East and NFC East. There are some challenging opponents in those divisions, but none more challenging, and important, than the Steelers taking care of business within their own division. You have to go back to 2010 to find a year when Pittsburgh finished with a record better than 4-2 in the division. That was the year they went to Super Bowl 45, and they finished 5-1 in the division.

There are no secrets when playing divisional opponents, but if the Steelers could have won just one of their three losses in the division this year, not only would they have controlled their destiny in Week 17, but they could have been looking at a different playoff scenario.

Free agency and the draft will take care of themselves, but if I'm Mike Tomlin, improving play in the AFC North is at the top of my team goals for next season.