Tougher Than They Look?

Everyone remembers the schedule for last season. The toughest doled out in decades, some said. Fact is, it was the NFL’s toughest last season; opponents had a combined record of 153-103 (.598) with half the games against 2007 playoff teams and twelve against teams with .500 or better records the prior season. Yes, it was a real murderer’s row of thugs and low-lifes, plus several teams not named the Ravens.

Few thought the Steelers would fare well against such a task in Tomlin’s second season at the helm. The team suffered a wild card round playoff loss the prior season, their second home loss to the Jaguars in less than three weeks. Their humbling finish to 2007 provided naught to suggest they were prepared for the test ahead in 2008.

Happily, we know how that turned out. Most likely we wear a goofy smile when pondering back to February 1, 2009.

What does the 2009 schedule promise for the World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers? Surely it’s tougher, doesn’t the Superbowl winner always have the toughest schedule? Not so fast people. Remember, there are only two strength of schedule (SOS) games per season. The remaining fourteen are comprised of six against divisional opponents and eight against the rotating AFC/NFC head-to-head division matches of the year.  Remember the 18-0 Patriots of a few years back?  Cream puff schedule, as it turns out, but one of the toughest SOS ratings.

How did the Steelers fare in the SOS department? Twenty-ninth in the league; as in, twenty eight teams have tougher schedules. Their opponents had a combined record of 110-144-2 (.434) last season. Wow, that sounds like a bunch of dogs. Do they somehow get to play the Browns and Bengals an extra two times each? Nope, they play the NFC North and the AFC West, neither was strong in 2008. The Chargers won the West with an 8-8 record while at 10-6, the Vikings were the sole playoff representative of  the North.

A closer look to the north and the plans of  “the Favre” could change perceptions a bit.  Last season Denver seemed on the verge of getting it together.  But the coaching staff has changed and their “star” QB, Jake Cutler, has long since exited, to their detriment.  But where did Cutler go?  Ah yes, to the NFC North and the Chicago Bears.   While Cutler frequently resembles a petulant pre-schooler more than an NFL QB, he’s a solid player, certainly better than they’ve had in a Bears’ uniform in recent decades.  He could propel them from mediocre to playoff hopefuls and the Bears should be an improved team.

In Green Bay, the Packers started off strong but ended up as duds.  If they’ve shored their weaknesses they may challenge for a wild card spot in the post season.  Aaron Rogers will have a year of starting QB experience under his belt and should be improved.  Their defense couldn’t possibly be worse.  Look for an improved team on the frozen tundra.

And speaking of Green Bay, what of “the Favre?”  If his shoulder allows, his (still yet to occur) signing in Minnesota could put the Vikings over the top.  A solid QB will do wonders for Adrian Peterson and that offense.  And a stud running back would make life easier for a grizzled veteran such as “the Favre.” Depending on what happens in Minnesota, the Vikings could be a force.

So, the NFC North could be much tougher than a glance at the 2008 final standings would suggest.  Did I forget to mention the Lions?  No.

Things don’t appear to be so sunny for the AFC West.  As mentioned before, the Broncos haven’t improved in the short term and another down year is likely.  But what of the Raiders, Chiefs and Chargers?

The Raiders will return Tom “Larry” Cable who replaced the elfin Lane Kiffin during the 2008 season.  They’ve been picking high in the draft lately, but look who’s making those picks.  They’re a mess, don’t expect much from the Raiders.

The Kansas City Chiefs are another team in the midst of a regime change.  But rather than loose a QB, they signed the Brady-esque phenom, Matt Cassel.  The league should find out in short order if Cassel was a product of the system or if he can really play. Todd Haley left the SB XLIII runners up for his first head coaching gig, we’ll learn how effective his offense is sans Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald.  The Chiefs are an enigma at this point, but there’s really only room for improvement at this point.  But a serious challenge to the Steelers?  Not so much.

That brings us to the San Diego Chargers.  This team has been going in one direction since Norv Turner took the reigns, the wrong direction.  While they made the playoffs with a paltry 8-8 record, they gave the Steelers two interesting games.  The first ever 11-10 final (after a mistake by the referees overturned a late defensive TD by the Steelers) and a 35-24 playoff match in which the only Chargers’ offensive play of the third quarter resulted in an interception.  Let’s say the Chargers are what we think they are.

And the AFC West is what we think it is:  a sorry division.

So, are the Steelers’ 2009 regular season opponents tougher than they look?  Yes and no.

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