The Pittsburgh Steelers Path to the Super Bowl in 2023
Welcome to the 2023 NFL season.
Thirty-two teams. Two conferences. Eight divisions.
That goal is the Super Bowl, and for the Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans, that goal has evaded them for far too long. Since their last Championship appearance in 2010, the vaunted Steelers have a grand total of 3 playoff wins in 10 games while giving up a whopping 29.7 points per game to their opponents, including 40+ in their last 3 contests.
For an organization known for dominant, championship-level defense, that’s frankly embarrassing.
There’s plenty of blame to go around. Much of the fans’ ire is pointed at head coach Mike Tomlin for a decade plus of underwhelming performances. While his much-ballyhooed record of non-losing regular seasons gets the majority of media attention, it’s fair and accurate to assert that he is part of the problem. The issue is putting a finger on exactly what his role in it all is, but as the head coach, the fact of the matter is the buck stops with him.
Beyond Tomlin, fans have many other scapegoats. Injuries to star players in the “Killer B’s” era, an aging Big Ben Roethlisberger holding back the offense, and of course defenses that have regularly dropped the ball in a major way are all talking points of the Black-and-Gold faithful.
It’s been frustrating, no doubt. However, there seems to be a growing feeling that maybe 2023 could be different.
Yes, excitement is beginning to bubble up for a contender-starved fan base. Fans of teams like the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons might scoff at that last sentence, but the fact is that expectations are higher for Steelers Nation. We demand excellence. Every. Year. In 2023, the disappointment of a decade of “same-old-Steelers” vibes has collided with an influx of youth and explosiveness fans haven’t seen in years, and it’s boiling over into a lot of hype and, once again, rising expectations.
I’ll admit, it’s a good feeling. This team really could have something special brewing. A young offense littered with talented skill players and an ascending young QB ready to prove to an entire league that he belongs combined with a veteran defense layered with stars at every level feels very 2005-ish, and I’m here for it.
Despite the relative optimism, simply making the AFC playoffs is poised to be a hellacious undertaking. There are no less than 12 AFC squads that should enter this season with a playoffs-or-bust mentality. The Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, and Las Vegas Raiders are the exceptions. The path to the Super Bowl for any AFC team will mean running a gauntlet of powerhouses to glory.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, that path starts by taking advantage of a relatively easy schedule. The image below is from sharpfootballanalysis.com and shows the Steelers owning the 8th-easiest schedule by projected Vegas win totals:
Landing a 3rd-place conference schedule means the Steelers avoid regular season matchups against some of the top teams like Kansas City and Buffalo. That’s not to say there aren’t tough contests on the calendar. The Steelers intra-division matchups are obviously of greatest import, but bouts with other contenders such as San Francisco and Jacksonville will afford Pittsburgh an opportunity to test their mettle against high-quality opponents.
It is vital for Mike Tomlin’s squad to take advantage of their schedule and win ballgames. Even 10 wins might not be enough to guarantee a spot in the dance come January. The Steelers are currently the favorites against the spread in 9 contests, but only one division game (Week 2 vs. Browns). Winning games against inferior opponents is obviously a must, but those 6 division games hold massive playoff implications with all three of the Steelers’ divisional opponents entering 2023 with legit playoff aspirations. If the Steelers can at least split their divisional games and go 3-3 in those contests, 10 wins feels like the floor for this team.
For the Steelers to have a chance to go all the way to the Super Bowl, though, I predict that they will need 12 regular season wins.
Steelers 2023 Schedule ATS
Week 1: 49ers -3 at Steelers
Week 2: Browns at Steelers -1
Week 3: Steelers at Raiders -2
Week 4: Steelers -3 at Texans
Week 5: Ravens -1 at Steelers
Week 6: bye Week
Week 7: Steelers at Rams (Pick em)
Week 8: Jaguars at Steelers -1
Week 9: Titans at Steelers -3.5
Week 10: Packers at Steelers -3
Week 11: Steelers at Browns -2
Week 12: Steelers at Bengals -5
Week 13: Cardinals at Steelers -6.5
Week 14: Patriots at Steelers -2.5
Week 15: Steelers -2 at Colts
Week 16: Bengals -3 at Steelers
Week 17: Steelers at Seahawks -2.5
Week 18: Steelers at Ravens NL
Lines courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook
In my opinion, the Steelers likely need to turn that 12-5 record into the AFC’s number one seed to have a shot at a Super Bowl appearance. Getting that first-round bye and securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is paramount to maximize the Steelers defensive strengths and allow the offense to work in the friendly confines of Acrisure Stadium. It also means you have to play one less loaded AFC team than everyone else.
Specifically, three things need to happen for Pittsburgh to lock up the 1-seed. Here they are:
The AFC East Teams must beat each other up
According to the above Strength of Schedule chart, all four AFC East teams have extremely tough schedules. Their gauntlets include not only a bloodbath of an intra-divisional lineup, but games against all four AFC West and NFC East squads. That’s unbelievably brutal. It likely means the division winner will have fewer wins than the AFC North winner, and if that happens to be Pittsburgh, it means a higher seed come playoffs.
The Cincinnati Bengals must take a step back
The Bengals have “ruled the North” the last two seasons, but it’s not all roses in Cincy in 2023. The team has overhauled basically its entire secondary from last year, forcing unproven players into major roles such as 2nd year safety Dax Hill and Rookie cornerback D.J. Turner. On the other side of the ball, a shaky O-line, specifically on the right side, could pose problems for Joe Burrow, and the team’s tight end and running back rooms have tons of question marks from top to bottom. It all points to the Bengals potentially going from great to good in 2023, leaving the door open for another AFC North squad to take the division.
The teams gunning for Kansas City must beat them
Let’s be honest here: the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs are the big problem in the AFC. They just don’t lose many football games. KC’s 2023 schedule, though, is as tough as it gets (5th hardest) with matchups against all four AFC East teams and a 1st place AFC schedule that pits them against teams like Buffalo, Cincy, Jacksonville, and a Super Bowl rematch vs. Philadelphia. Their division-mates in Los Angeles and Denver also should be improved this year. The Steelers need KC to have an underwhelming regular season. Facing the Chiefs in the playoffs is daunting enough. Having to do so in Arrowhead is nigh impossible.
Beyond the schedule navigation and potential for a little outside help, the Pittsburgh Steelers enter 2023 with tangible reasons for optimism inside the building. In order to make a Super Bowl run, it all starts with the 2nd-year quarterback. Kenny Pickett can’t be just a guy. He has to be a star for this team. Not necessarily a Top 10 quarterback, although I believe there is potential for that. He has to be a winner. He has to carry over and improve on the moxie and clutch mentality he displayed in the 2nd half of 2022. While I think the running game will likely be the driving force of success for the offense in 2023, this pass-catching crew is ready to explode onto the NFL scene as a premier group. If Pickett can help them get there, the Steelers offense can be good enough to win in the playoffs.
For the defense, it’s about key players staying healthy (looking at you, Trent Jordan Watt), that front 7 absolutely wrecking offenses, and forcing turnovers to set up the offense for extra success. The pieces are there, and despite attempting to roll out a new-look secondary, there’s real belief in that building that this group can be better than the one that led the NFL in interceptions in 2022.
The path to the Super Bowl is long and intricate, and a lot of things have to go right for any team to make it to Championship Sunday. For Pittsburgh, I believe it’s vital that each of the items detailed in this article come to pass. Then, it’s up to them to win when it counts to turn that decade of playoff debacles into a distant memory.
Is it impossible? No. Improbable? Maybe. But what are sports if not a chance for the improbable to become reality?
I, for one, am looking forward to watching it all play out.
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