I know many of you have visions of sugar plums and Super Bowls for the Steelers for the 2016 season, but lets get real. If fans are going to 7th Heaven next year, the Steelers need to give themselves the best chance of doing so. That means grabbing home field advantage for at least one playoff game (if not two) and getting a bye in the first round so that the team can get as healthy as possible for the Super Bowl run.
These last two years fans saw the team head into the playoffs with one hand (and one knee) tied behind their backs. Is it any wonder they came up short? I know in 2005 Pittsburgh won it all it as a Wild Card, but those type of scenarios are the exception, not the rule. If the Steelers want to win the Super Bowl in 2016, they have to win their division and grab a first round bye. By my reckoning, based on past years, that means a regular season finish of 13-3 or better could ensure this.
What will it take to go 13-3? While we don't know the exact dates of the 2016 schedule, we know who the Steelers play at home and away. Lets take a real early peak at the upcoming opponents and make some assumptions to see how realistic a 13-3 record can be.
As always there are 6 games against our friends from Cleveland, Baltimore and Cincinnati. We all know these are black and blue games. Besides winning the Steelers need to come out of these games as healthy as possible.
This won't be easy, but if the Steelers can go 5-1 against the AFC North, they could be well on their way to the desired 13-3 record. Here is what they need to do:
Baltimore - The Ravens have frankly owned Pittsburgh in recent years. Even when they are outplayed Ravens they find a way to win. When they have half a team, they win. Pittsburgh needs to get back to beating Baltimore. Period. It wont be easy either. T-Sizzle will be back, Joe Flacco should be back and Justin Forsett should be back. On top of that, they have some high draft picks this year. All of the above not withstanding, there is no reason the Steelers shouldn't sweep Baltimore. Their offense is no comparison to Pittsburgh's, their defense is not up to the Ray Lewis years. Pittsburgh's defense, with an improved secondary, should be able to shut them down. Perhaps most importantly, the Steelers should have a good kicker this time around!
Cincinnati - Mark your calendar when the dates against the Bengals are set. It is going to be a blood bath. Hopefully one of the games will happen when every Steelers fan favorite Bengal, Vontaze Burfict is serving his suspension. On the other hand, Andy Dalton will be back and the Bengals have perhaps the best talent across the board in the league. But they are the Bungles and Pittsburgh simply owns them. That playoff loss will be in their heads all year and especially when they play in 2016.
Cleveland - OK we won't see Johnny Football here and frankly I am not sure how good a team the Steelers will see here. This should be an easy two W's against a division and conference foe.
My call is that the Steelers lose one of the games against either Baltimore or Cincy and sweep the rest. If they can do that, and come out of these game relatively healthy, they could be on their way to 13-3 and a bye.
Next season the AFC North is paired with the NFC east teams. Based on last years results, it seems like a pretty cushy stretch of games, but that was last year. These will not be pushover games. The schedule has the team playing the Giants and Cowboys at home, the 'Skins and Eagles on the road.
While Pittsburgh is lucky to see the Giants and Dallas at home, these teams figure to be a lot better than last year. Dallas will probably have a healthy Tony Romo, Dez and improved D, plus their monster line. The Giants should see Victor Cruz back, JPP healthier and an overall fresher team. These are not push over games, but they are in friendly Heinz field where the Steelers are very strong. My call is the team takes both of the home games.
On the road against Washington and Philly is a tall order. Washington won the division last year and figures to be stronger next year. Philly wasn't as bad as their record, but is in a bit of a re-boot, so to speak. I think the Steelers take Philly down, especially if they play early in the season. Washington is going to be a tough game, but I think they can win a shoot out with Ben Roethlisberger and the offense against Washington's defense.
So that leaves Pittsburgh 4-0 against the NFC East, but if they go 3-1, I would bet it is Washington, or perhaps the Giants, that tag the 'L' on Pittsburgh's schedule.
This is going to be a another touch stretch of games.The Pats and Jets come to town and the team travels to Buffalo (lets hope not late in the season) and Miami (lets hope late in the season). While all of these teams can pose challenges, my money says the Steelers probably lose to the Pats, as the past record would dictate, but Pittsburgh should certainly handle the rest. So my pick here is the Steelers finish 3-1 against this set of teams.
Our other two games are against two other AFC 2nd place teams from last year, Kansas City and Indianapolis. KC comes to Heinz Field and the Steelers travel to the dome in Indy. Both of these games are going to be tough. Indy will probably have a healthy Luck with a full compliment of weapons and an improving defense. Playing at their house makes it even tougher. However, Ben has torched them recently and there is no reason to think he won't again. I like the Steelers in a shoot out in Indy.
KC is another story. This team always plays Pittsburgh tough. My biggest fear is keeping Ben healthy against them. They are coming to the 'burgh, but I just don't get a good feeling about this one. I am going to call this one a loss in the books.
The good news is that would only be the third loss of the season and leave the Steelers with a 13-3 record. Now maybe I am wrong, they beat KC and lose another one to AFC North or and AFC East team. Of course it could happen, but this is the road map to 13-3, a first round bye in the playoffs and likely home field advantage on their road to Super Bowl 51.
If we are serious about the Steelers winning their 7th Lombardi, this is the kind of season and results which will position them to get there. Anything less and the team will be making the road a lot harder than anyone would like. We can revisit this as we get closer to the season, but this is the way I see it right now. How about you?