It might not take long for Cardiac Kids to be adopted as the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers' unofficial nickname. After playing in 12 games last season that were decided by one possession (including seven straight games), don't be surprised if Pittsburgh's 2023 season offers a similar script.
On paper, this is the Steelers' strongest team since 2020, when Pittsburgh started 11-0 before the NFL's bizarre scheduling (Pittsburgh played three games in 12 days at one point) contributed to a 1-5 finish. The Steelers' improved roster would suggest that there may be a few blowouts, but given their schedule, coupled with the fact that the NFL is designed to create parity among the teams, one can expect more close games than yawners for the black and gold.
Kenny Pickett is another reason why Cardiac Kids could end up being a fitting description for the 2023 Steelers. Pickett seems to have a penchant for close games. While he and the Steelers were on the short end of a few close games, Pickett did lead four fourth-quarter game-winning drives during a rookie season that was largely successful. While he looks like a promising player, Pickett is not a known commodity at this point at the NFL level. That will undoubtedly lead to some exciting yet, at times, stressful moments, much like the Steelers' 1997 season that saw a young QB named Kordell Stewart lead Pittsburgh to within one game of the Super Bowl after leading the black and gold to several nail-biting victories during the regular season.
The Steelers have more than a few compelling games on the slate. Here are the top-five Steelers games that fans should consider must-see viewing, starting with a prime-time game against a longtime rival.
5. Week 14 vs. Patriots ("Thursday Night Football")
OK, this doesn't have the same cache as it may have a few years ago, but Steelers-Patriots still means something as they are the only two franchises with six Lombardi Trophies. For the Steelers and their fans, the Patriots have been a major thorn in their side since Bill Belichick came to New England. Belichick is 13-5 against the Steelers over that time, which includes last year's 17-14 upset win at Acrisure Stadium.
While many of his wins against Pittsburgh were the result of having the superior team, last year's win was among Belichick's victories over the Steelers where New England was the inferior squad. The Patriots won because they made fewer mistakes, capitalized on Pittsburgh's miscues and took advantage of one of the Steelers' main weaknesses. In that game, the Patriots ran out the clock by running at will against a Steelers defense that couldn't stop them. (This game may have contributed to the Steelers drafting Wisconsin IDL Keeanu Benton in the second round of this year's draft.)
The Steelers will again have the better team when these two teams face off late in the 2023 season on prime time. But that doesn't mean, however, that the Patriots should be taken lightly. Far from it, as New England's roster carries several notable names that include former Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Patriots also have a talented secondary that will surely try to make life tough for Pickett and Co.
Pittsburgh's loss to New England last year contributed to it missing the playoffs. Will history repeat itself this season, or will the Steelers get a rare win over Belichick's Patriots? The answer will likely determine whether or not Pittsburgh makes or misses the playoffs.
4. Week 3 at Raiders ("Sunday Night Football")
This game managed to make the cut ahead of the Steelers-Browns Week 2 "Monday Night Football" matchup. This game was picked instead for several reasons, starting with the fact that this will be the Steelers' first-ever game in Las Vegas. Rest assured that Steelers fans will highlight the occasion by taking over another rival's stadium and -- for a night -- calling it their own.
Like the Patriots, the Raiders are on paper an inferior team to the Steelers. Also like the Patriots, this doesn't mean that the Raiders should be considered an easy opponent. Second-year Vegas coach Josh McDaniels has began an overhaul of the team's roster that includes replacing Derek Carr with Jimmy Garoppolo, who beat the Steelers as a member of the 49ers back in Week 3 of the 2019 season. Garoppolo isn't mobile, but he is a precise, short-range passer who can carve a defense up if he has time and is able to get into a rhythm.
On defense, the Raiders have one of the league's best pass-rushers in Maxx Crosby. Rest assured that the Steelers will be focused on No. 98 all game while giving Chukwuma Okorafor extra help in passing situations. Las Vegas' defense also has a familiar face in former Steelers inside linebacker Robert Spillane.
As the Steelers' first road game of the season, this will be a good test for Pittsburgh as far as finding ways to have success in hostile situations, especially in prime time. This is also a great historical matchup between two teams that engaged in one of the NFL's greatest rivalries back in the 1970s.
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3. Week 1 vs. 49ers
Right out of the gate, the Steelers have a great matchup against a formidable opponent. And unlike the previous two games on this list, the Steelers will likely be the underdog when these two teams kick things off to open the season.
This game isn't as significant as the other games on this since the 49ers are an NFC team, so a loss against them doesn't hurt them as much. That being said, any game in the NFL is a big game, especially one against a team that has played in the last two NFC Championship Games as the 49ers have.
As far as a Week 1 matchup that will serve as a good test for the remainder of the season, it doesn't get much better than the 49ers, who boast one of the league's most talented rosters that includes halfback Christian McCaffrey, wideout Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle, offensive tackle Trent Williams, pass-rusher Nick Bosa and defensive tackle and former Steeler Javon Hargrave.
Quarterback is the big question surrounding the 49ers with Trey Lance and Brock Purdy still rehabbing from surgeries. At this point, the 49ers' starting quarterback for this game would be veteran Sam Darnold, who as the Panthers QB played well in a losing effort against the Steelers late in the 2022 season.
More than anything, this game will be a good test for Pickett, as he will go against a defense that gave up the fewest points in the NFL in 2022.
2. Week 16 vs. Bengals
Played two days before Christmas, this game will likely be one of the more anticipated games on the league's Week 16 calendar. This will be the second matchup in five weeks between the two teams, as the Steelers will travel to Cincinnati in Week 12 for the second of back-to-back AFC North road showdowns.
Steelers fans don't have to be reminded of this history between these two teams. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati "enjoyed" a fierce rivalry in the mid-2000s. The rivalry was renewed a decade later when the Steelers defeated the Bengals for a second time in the AFC wild card round. Each game during those periods seemed more like a WWE event, with more flags being thrown at times than Terrible Towels being waved in the stands.
The current climate between the two teams is much cooler, but the talent on the field when the Steelers and Bengals face off is anything but. Led by quarterback Joe Burrow, the Bengals have one of the best offensives in football. That unit will only be better this season with the addition of three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. On defense, the Bengals posses a formidable front-seven that includes defensive ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard along with linebackers Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson.
Sans Mike Hilton, the Bengals' secondary has been turned over the last two offseasons. Dax Hill and Nick Scott will replace former starting safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell, who departed this offseason. Chidobe Awuzie is coming back from last year's season-ending knee injury, while Cam Taylor-Britt -- who enjoyed a surprisingly good rookie season in '22 -- will be a full-time starter after Cincinnati didn't re-sign Eli Apple.
The Bengals are once again expected to be good in 2023, but will their re-vamped defense be a liability? The Steelers are certainly hoping so.
1. Week 18 at Ravens
Was there really any other option here? On the final game of the regular season, the Steelers will go on the road to face their chief rival in a game that will surely have playoff implications for both teams. What else needs to be said?
Let's start with the fact that neither team likes the other, and that always makes for good theatre when the Steelers and Ravens clash. This game will likely follow the long list of Steelers-Ravens games that won't be decided until the final play. This was the case the last time Pittsburgh and Baltimore met in Week 18, when Ben Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh to an overtime win the final regular season game of the future Hall of Fame quarterback's career.
Speaking of quarterbacks, this is an intriguing matchup between Pickett and Lamar Jackson, who remains in Baltimore after he finally got his long-term deal last month. As good as Jackson has been during his time in Baltimore, he has somewhat struggled against AFC North foes. He's just 1-2 against the Steelers with his only win coming in his first start against Pittsburgh way back in 2019. Jackson's last start against Pittsburgh game in a 20-19 win for the Steelers that saw Jackson get sacked seven times, with T.J. Watt accounting for half of that tally.
The Ravens have gone the extra mile this offseason to try to improve Jackson's receiving corps; they signed free agent Odell Beckham Jr. and drafted wideout Zay Flowers in the first round. But Baltimore's bread and butter is still their running game, led by Jackson and J.K. Dobbins. It was Dobbins' 120 yards that propelled Baltimore past Pittsburgh when these two teams played in Week 13 of the 2022 season.
Pittsburgh's running back, Najee Harris, made a similar impact when the teams met again in Week 16. Harris ran with notable intensity while picking up 111 yards on 22 carries. He capped off his performance by catching the game-winning touchdown from Pickett with under a minute left.
It's safe to say that Harris will need to have a similar performance in this game, a game that will more than likely have huge ramifications for the black and gold.