By BOB LABRIOLA
All of a sudden, it's an advantage. It sure didn't look that way in early April, but that's the way it's turning out in mid-December.
When the NFL announced its 2008 season schedule, the one assigned to the Steelers looked like a killer. Only two of the teams on it – Baltimore and Cincinnati – had finished below .500 the previous season, and the only team among their 10 non-division opponents to miss the playoffs was the 8-8 Houston Texans.
Some wise guys predicted the AFC North champion in 2008 would be lucky to finish above .500, and more than a few of the national media responded to the Steelers schedule by picking the Cleveland Browns to win the division.
From the day the schedule was released, Coach Mike Tomlin refused to take part in any discussions about the degree of difficulty; instead, he chose to file the schedule under the same category as injuries and the weather and the other things that are out of his control.
But as the Steelers take an 11-3 record to Tennessee for a game against the AFC-leading Titans, the schedule might have been something working in their favor.
Defeating the New England Patriots was something the Steelers had been able to do only once since Bill Belichick became that team's coach, and doing it so convincingly on the road had to be an emotional high. But there was no time to savor it, because the next opponent was the Dallas Cowboys.
Beating the Cowboys in the final two minutes was such an emotional high that it could be expected a team would suffer a letdown the next weekend. Not so when the next weekend held a game against the Baltimore Ravens.
Certainly, there is the possibility of a letdown after successive wins over the Patriots, Cowboys and Ravens, but not so when the upcoming weekend holds a game against the Titans, currently the owners of the best record in football.
"That is one of the things that we have talked quite a bit about and focused quite a bit about through all of this," said Tomlin. "Ultimately we will be measured by how we deal with success. Our ability to stay humble and grounded is going to be critical. I think we have done that. I think that has been helped by, after each one of those wins, we have been faced with another steep challenge.
"That comes this week in the form of the Tennessee Titans. It's easy to get your feet back on the ground. Just turn that tape on and watch our opponent this week, and you will quickly realize that we have a tall order in front of us."
The win over the Ravens was one over a hated rival and it also clinched the AFC North Division title for the Steelers – the second in Tomlin's two seasons as the team's coach and the 19th for the franchise since the 1970 merger – but this game against the Titans brings a tangible carrot with it as well.
If the Steelers defeat the Titans and then close the season with a win at home against the Cleveland Browns, they would earn the top seed in the AFC playoffs and ensure that each of their conference postseason games would be played at Heinz Field.
But even that wasn't enough to get Tomlin to adjust his stance on the matter of the schedule.
"You know how we approach it. This is a big game because it is the next one," said Tomlin. "It happens to be the team that is in the pole position in the AFC, and it is at their place. All of those things make your hair stand up as you prepare. We will do that and hopefully we will do well enough to win."