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Steelers Unprecedented Divisional Schedule Not Intentional, NFL Scheduling Head Says

The Pittsburgh Steelers playing all six of their divisional games over the last 8 weeks of the season is not something the NFL considers unfair.

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Pittsburgh Steelers RB Najee Harris
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris is tackled by two Baltimore Ravens at M&T Stadium on Jan. 6, 2024. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been playing divisional football since 1967, when the NFL first divided its two conferences into what was then four divisions. That year, they didn’t have to wait long to play their first divisional game. The St. Louis Cardinals came to Pittsburgh in Week 2.

Fifty-seven years later, the Steelers are making history. In the Steelers 2024 schedule, their first AFC North game won’t come until Week 11, the latest start to divisional play in team history. In fact, not only is it the latest start in team history, but no team since at least 2002 has had a schedule like this, so it is a wholly unique situation.

Just once in team history has, the first divisional break came after the season’s midpoint. That was in 1991, when their first AFC Central game came against the Cleveland Browns in Week 9. Since then, they had two Week 7 starts to AFC North play, but nothing like what they face this season. But NFL VP Mike North says that was hardly intentional.

“We certainly didn’t set out to have any divisional games that late,” NFL Vice President of Broadcast Planning Mike North said on Thursday’s conference call with reporters. “It’s like a college basketball schedule with the non-conference early. It wasn’t intentional but it wasn’t something we looked at and thought was unfair. You talk about the physicality of the divisional games, and I’m not sure that any NFL game is not a physical contest.

So, I don’t like to use the term legacy when talking about someone like Howard Katz because he’s still here, and hopefully, he’s here for the long term, but if there is a legacy of Howard Katz’s schedules, it’s division games late in the season. So, it is something we are kind of looking for and even rooting for, not forcing it, other than Week 18, obviously, more divisional games late in the season usually means fewer teams clinch playoff spots and even if you have a team that is eliminated from playoff contention, you can throw out the records and those teams are still playing hard….we didn’t set out to have the Steelers and I think the Bears not play a divisional game until Week 9 or 10. It’s certainly something we’ll look at moving forward, but not necessarily a disqualifier.”

STEELERS LATEST FIRST DIVISIONAL GAMES

1979 Week 6 at Cleveland Browns
1981 Week 6 vs Cleveland Browns
1991 Week 9 at Cleveland Browns
2005 Week 7 at Cincinnati Bengals
2012 Week 7 at Cincinnati Bengals

“They are bunched together,” team president Art Rooney II said to Steelers.com. “That’s probably going to be quite a stretch and will be a meaningful stretch, for sure. It’s kind of unusual. I’m not sure I can remember having one like this, where we don’t play any division games until late in the season. It’s something different.”

Steelers RB Jaylen Warren

Steelers RB Jaylen Warren runs against the Cleveland Browns, Nov. 19, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The schedule sets up the Steelers to have to close strong and win their games in the AFC North, something they’ve done well over the last few years. Since 2020, the Steelers are 16-8 against divisional opponents and are 11-5 in the final four weeks of the season. That history should give the team an edge in this season’s tough divisional stretch run.

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“You never take anything for granted. The teams in our division are all tough,” Rooney said. “Some people would say we have the toughest division in football, and I probably would agree with that. They’ll all be tough games. It will be a challenge.”

The Steelers’ one thing going for them this year is their bye week, which comes in Week 9, right before the divisional gauntlet starts. They had an early Week 6 bye last week. However, the NFL does not view the schedule as unfair to the Steelers. The back half of the schedule is brutal because of the AFC North opponents, but Pittsburgh will have to overcome that to make a playoff push.

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