Schedule in the AFC North Favors the Steelers the Rest of the Way

The Steelers schedule has worked out well. After laying two giant eggs in the 4th quarter against Cincinnati and Chicago (and almost one against San Diego), the Steelers cleaned up two below average teams in Detroit and Cleveland.

Meanwhile, Baltimore dropped three in a row (!) to New England, the surprising Bengals, and Minnesota: all close games. This is the point in the year when teams that start hot descend back to planet earth. Looking ahead at the Baltimore-Pittsburgh match-up that looms the week after Thanksgiving, let’s see the respective schedules of both of these teams:

at Denver
at Kansas City

at Cincinnati
at Cleveland

Hmm… at first glance, I would say the Steelers is a little tougher, just a little. Minnesota at home is lucky at this point in the year but at Denver is always difficult for the Steelers and Arrowhead Stadium is always a loud, crazy place. Maybe I’m giving KC too much credit.

The Steelers can’t possibly be swept by the Bengals and call themselves potential AFC North champions. Baltimore of course draws two difficult opponents in Denver and Indy, but both at home. Back-to-back pumpkin head games are both wins. Baltimore will probably lose at least one of the two home games in that span, all things considered. They’d be 6-4.

Let’s say for the sake of argument the Steelers lose Sunday, but find a way after the bye on Monday Night against Denver, then beat up on Cincinnati and Kansas City: they end up 7-3. Just for shits, let’s throw the Bengals schedule up there too:

at Pittsburgh
at Oakland

Now at first glance with how they’re playing, and after the bye (Bears can definitely beat them), they still lose to Ravens and Steelers back-to-back. 5-5? Geez. Either way you look at it, the division games in this little span are really, really important.

For the Bengals, it’s the difference between first or third place. Cleveland, if they decide to pick their pants up, could ruin some dreams in this span as well. That Chicago game really seems important. Of course, every game is important but bear with me (oh boy).

So that’s all a long way of saying this game Sunday is going to be interesting, it’s easily the game of the week. New Orleans / Miami seems interesting as well, and Atlanta / Dallas or Arizona / New York Giants could be fun. Maybe it’s the Favre magic, and maybe I’m too proud to admit it, but this game is going to be great. Conveniently, the near-perfect division scheduling by the NFL saw the Vikings narrowly defeat Baltimore last week in the dome, which as above is interesting to compare division rivals.

The story of the game was Minnesota’s early dominance and the Ravens’ resurgence late, 3 TDs in the 4th quarter. Flacco played great, 2 TDs, no picks and over 350 yards (more than “Oh he’s just having fun out there” Favre). Their running game was did what it could, and ultimately kept them in the game. Ray Rice had crazy longs runs both from scrimmage and after the catch and scored twice on the Minnesota defense, which has allowed an average of 93.5 yards per game on the ground, not bad.

Minnesota has a weak secondary, allowing about 250 yards a game, which is in the bottom 10 in the league. That should translate to Big Ben lighting it up. He’s been extraordinary this season, leading the league in passing yards (yes, it’s true) through week 6 with 1,887. He’s shown great playmaking ability and he spreads the ball around.

He takes some sacks, and the Minnesota pass rush has 21 sacks, which is a significant number: over 3 a game. The thing to remember about Minnesota is that they score a lot of points but they give up a decent amount too. They are vulnerable in their back field. Rashard Mendenhall, now officially the starter, really needs to have a good game.

Their offense features Adrian Peterson. That’s probably all I have to say. He rushed for 143 on 22 carries last week. That’s a huge deal, even for one of the best (if THE best) backs in the league to do that against Baltimore. I’m thinking now this column consistently puts Baltimore on a pedestal, whatever. Now even if this is eschewed because Peterson is very good, I don’t quite know how effective he’ll be against Pittsburgh.

I can only say the Steelers run defense has been really good, and only seeks to improve. They’ve lost Aaron Smith, which is a big deal. Peterson has never played against the Steelers. And the Steelers have never played the Vikings without Aaron Smith. Number one on the Steelers game plain is to contain him, that’s a no-brainer.

#4 is a dangerous player for a lot of reasons. None of them I want to type here. But I do want to look at Brett Favre’s history against Pittsburgh. He’s 2-2 against Pittsburgh, both loses coming in the last two times they’ve played, one waaaaay back in 1998. The Steelers passing defense is very good, among the top of the league, and Polamalu is now back and so that automatically just increases the defense all around.

The Vikings O-line is solid, and as a football fan in general I just want to watch the Steelers pass rush try to beat them to the ball. This is going to be a hell of a game. Favre is unpredictable but also prone to mistake, if the game’s close by the end, and Minnesota has the ball, look out. The idea then is to get the lead early and keep the cushion going the whole game. This is a great test for the Steelers at this point in the season.

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