The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off back-to-back 8-8 seasons and they didn't qualify for the playoffs either time, which marked the first multi-year absence from the postseason for the first time since a year-season span from 1998-2000.
Those facts are undeniable, and upon the release of the league's 2014 schedule, so is this: the three television networks that broadcast NFL football in prime-time still love the Steelers.
The maximum number of prime-time games that can be included on a team's initial schedule is five, and the Steelers are maxed out in that department for 2014. The NFL does reserve the right to flex a team into a sixth prime-time appearance, but as of today the Steelers are as popular with the networks as any other franchise in the league when it comes to drawing eyeballs to the television industry's most important slot.
"It says that we still have an enormous fan following out there – across the country and around the world – and the league wants to make sure we're playing a lot of our games when fans can see them on television," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "That's great, and we hope to be able to put on a good show for our fans around the world in those games."
The prime-time schedule includes two appearances on Monday night – at home against the Houston Texans on Oct. 20 and on the road against the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 17; two appearances on Sunday night – at Carolina against the Panthers on Sept. 21 and at home against the Baltimore Ravens on Nov. 2; and then a Thursday night game against the Ravens in Baltimore on Sept. 11.
The Thursday night game in Baltimore will be the first-ever CBS telecast of a package that's being introduced for the 2014 season.
"We were chosen for the first-ever CBS Thursday Night Game, and it's at the Ravens," said Rooney. "It seems like all of our games against the Ravens lately are being shown on prime-time, so there's obviously a lot of national interest in that rivalry. To have both of our games against the Ravens on prime-time this season will be something different."
Including 2014, the Steelers and Ravens have played in prime-time at least once in each of the last eight seasons, with 2006 being the most recent year when the teams faced off in a home-and-home series of 1 p.m. kickoffs. But this will be the first time in that span where both of the games will be played in prime-time, and it also will mark the second straight year the Steelers are getting sent to Baltimore on a short week for a Thursday night game. In 2013, the Thursday night game in Baltimore was the third of the Thanksgiving Day tripleheader.
"I guess if you have to (go to Baltimore on a short week), I'd probably rather have to do it early in the season as opposed to late," said Rooney. "Going to Baltimore on a short week will be a challenge, but that's always the way it seems to be when we go to Baltimore. We're looking forward to it."
According to the NFL, ESPN requested eight teams for multiple Monday night appearances: Chicago, Indianapolis, New Orleans, the New York Giants, the New York Jets, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington. NBC's Sunday night schedule includes at least one appearance by every team that made the playoffs in 2013, and the teams with multiple appearances on that network are Dallas, Denver, Green Bay, Indianapolis, New England, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Seattle.
For the fifth time in Mike Tomlin's eight seasons as the Steelers coach, the team will open at home. This time it will be against the Cleveland Browns at 1 p.m. on Sept. 7. The Steelers will play only two of their first six games at Heinz Field, but then they have three straight home games that will take the team through the first weekend in November.
Of the Steelers final three home games – Nov. 30 against New Orleans, Dec. 21 vs. Kansas City, and Dec. 28 vs. Cincinnati – each of them currently is scheduled for a 1 p.m. kickoff.
In another quirk of the 2014 schedule, the Steelers eight road games are divided into four sets of back-to-back trips.
"Those four sets of back-to-back road games are a little unusual," said Rooney, "and we also have a stretch where we have three home games in succession. I like that. The schedule, in general, I think is a good one. It breaks down pretty well in terms of not having any imbalance with any large number of road games at any stage of the season, so I like the way it has been laid out."
The Steelers' bye this year will come in Week 12 – Nov. 23 – the latest any NFL teams can have their bye weekends.
"They're always welcome," said Rooney about the bye, "but I tend to think it's better to have a late bye than an early bye if you have a choice just because a lot of times you're getting to the end of a season and guys are banged up and they can use an extra week. To me, I'd rather have a late bye."
And in a bit of a departure, the Steelers post-Thanksgiving schedule is not packed with games against AFC North foes. In fact, over the last eight weekends of 2014, the Steelers' only games against AFC North teams are the two against the Cincinnati Bengals.
"I haven't seen every other team's schedule, but the league would like to have more division games toward the end of the schedule," said Rooney. "Maybe they just couldn't make that work for us, with everything else they're trying to do in making up a schedule, and so Cincinnati will be the focus at the end of the season for us in terms of division games. That's developing into a pretty intense rivalry, and so that will add some spice to the end of the season.
"Overall, I think it's a good home schedule," added Rooney. "I do like the fact the night games are not late-season night games. Our fans prefer that. The prime-time home games are in the heart of the schedule, which is a good thing. It's a good schedule, and we're excited about it. Being home on opening weekend is always a nice way to start."