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Rooney analyzes his team's 2018 schedule

Maybe the Steelers don't have to work on Christmas Day this year, as they have in each of the two previous seasons. But they certainly will have their work cut out for them leading up to that national holiday if they're again going to be in the mix to play the role of host in the postseason and contend for one of the AFC's two first-round byes heading into the playoffs.

The NFL has released its 2018 regular season schedule, and while the Steelers' version begins just as it did for them in 2017 – with a 1 p.m. game against the Browns in Cleveland – the challenge it potentially poses over its second half could be unlike anything the team has faced in 10 years.

Back in 2008, the Steelers faced a nine-week gauntlet that included games against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, at Washington on a Monday night, then a game against Peyton Manning's 12-4 Colts, then a game against Philip Rivers and a Chargers team that would win the AFC West, then a Thursday night game against Cincinnati, then a trip to New England, followed by a game against the Dallas Cowboys, then a trip to Baltimore, and then a trip to Nashville to play a Tennessee Titans team that would finish the regular season as the AFC's No. 1 seed heading into the playoffs.

Coach Mike Tomlin came to refer to that stretch of the 2008 schedule as being the "five-star matchup of the week," and there's a similar nine-week stretch awaiting the Steelers at the end of the 2018 regular season.

Starting on Nov. 4, the Steelers are scheduled to travel to Baltimore, then come back to host Carolina on a Thursday night, then travel to Jacksonville, then travel to Denver, return home for a game against Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers, and then travel to Oakland for a Sunday night game, which will be followed by a home game against the Patriots, then it's a trip to New Orleans to face Drew Brees and the Saints, before the season finale against the Bengals at Heinz Field.

Here are photos from our last meeting with each of our 2018 opponents.

It's certainly no day the beach, unless that beach is in Normandy and the day is June 6, 1944.

"It's a tough stretch after the bye, and most of the prime time games fall into that stretch, as they did last year," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "It'll be an interesting challenge."

As usual, the Steelers are scheduled for the full complement of five primetime games – Monday night, Sept. 24, in Tampa; Sunday night, Sept. 30, vs. Baltimore; Thursday night, Nov. 8, vs. Carolina; Sunday night, Nov. 18, at Jacksonville; and Sunday night, Dec. 9, at Oakland. By rule, the Steelers could be flexed into a sixth primetime game.

"As usual, there are a number of interesting primetime games, and probably the only one I would complain about is that Sunday night out in Oakland," said Rooney. "You never like to see those night games on the West Coast, but we do like to be on prime time, and we have our share of those."

For the second straight season, the Steelers will host the Patriots, and for the second straight season they will be coming off a difficult game when they do so. Last season, it was a night game vs. the Ravens leading up to New England. This time it will be a night game on the West Coast and a five-hour flight home that will create a short week of preparation for the Patriots.

"Look, it's one of those things where having the night games means you're one of the primetime teams and you want to be that kind of team where the league wants to feature you, and so you wind up having things like that," said Rooney. "You just have to learn to deal with it."

The third of their five night games, and the first of the three that come after the bye, is against Carolina on a Thursday night at Heinz Field, and Rooney said the Steelers will wear their Color Rush uniforms for that game even though FOX, which secured the rights to telecast the NFL's Thursday Night Football package, announced the network isn't interested in making it mandatory that teams wear their Color Rush uniforms every Thursday night.

"We like our Color Rush uniforms," said Rooney, "and we plan to wear them that night until somebody tells us we're not supposed to do that."

Rooney also said the Steelers will have a throwback jersey this year as well, but he wasn't prepared to reveal what the jersey would look like or when the team will wear it.

"We're going to have a new throwback jersey this year, and we'll have to decide when we're going to wear that," said Rooney. "We haven't decided that yet. That'll be another piece of the puzzle, and we'll look closer at the schedule and make a decision on when. We've already decided on the throwback jersey, but we have a planned day to unveil it, so that will be coming up at the end of May."

Every September, the Steelers and Pirates have to share the month because of the proximity of Heinz Field to PNC Park. For the most part, that has been an amicable situation, and in 2018 the four September weekends will be divided equally, to enable each team to be home for two weekends apiece.

"That's always been our agreement with the Pirates," said Rooney, "and Major League Baseball and the NFL understand that we're to split the early weekends so that we have two and they have two."

With their two September weekends, the Steelers will host Kansas City on Sept. 16 for their home opener, and then the month ends with a Sunday night, Sept. 30, bar brawl with the Baltimore Ravens.

"The Kansas City Chiefs as our opponent for the home opener should be an interesting game because they're always a tough opponent," said Rooney. "Then our second home game is on a Sunday night against the Ravens, and we've certainly had a number of Sunday night battles with the Ravens."

Since so much of the Steelers 2018 schedule is the same, it's somewhat appropriate that it will have a different ending. In seven of the last eight seasons, the Steelers' final opponent of the regular season has been Cleveland. This time it will be the Cincinnati Bengals.

"They like to switch them up," said Rooney about the league's preference for those finales. "We have played Cleveland in a lot of those games at the very end of the year, and so I think it's a good idea to switch things up once in a while. As I understand it, all the games at the very end of the regular season are division games, and that's a good thing."

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