2018 Pittsburgh Steelers game-by-game predictions

Woodson predicts hot start for Steelers (1:31)

Darren Woodson projects the Steelers' 2018 schedule, suggesting an 11-5 season in Pittsburgh. (1:31)

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' opponents for next season finished below .500 collectively last season, but the franchise won't be fooled into thinking that's a major advantage this time around. The team's 2018 schedule is well-stocked with heavy hitters and travel-heavy stretches that will make earning a spot atop the AFC most challenging. Pittsburgh has proved equipped to handle those challenges with four straight seasons of double-digit wins. Earning a fifth will require the offense to win a few shootouts and the defense to improve.

Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, at Cleveland Browns, 1 p.m. ET.

The Steelers open in Cleveland for the second straight year, and the Browns played them tight in two games last season. New receiver tandem Jarvis Landry and Josh Gordon should test the Steelers' secondary. But Pittsburgh has won nine of their past 10 over Cleveland, and it's not stopping that trend against a roster in transition. Record: 1-0

Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, vs. Kansas City Chiefs, 1 p.m. ET

This is a fascinating matchup because the Chiefs offense under Alex Smith struggled to beat the Steelers' zone coverages, but new quarterback Patrick Mahomes will try to challenge that scheme vertically. The Steelers will likely sell out on stopping Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, leaving Artie Burns or Joe Haden in one-on-ones against Sammy Watkins. Steelers will do just enough to contain him. Record: 2-0

Week 3: Monday, Sept. 24, at Tampa Bay Bucs, 8:15 p.m. ET

The Bucs enter a pivotal year for Dirk Koetter's staff, and Jameis Winston's play improved late last season. Tampa is capable of beating anyone, and the Steelers are 2-5 against Florida teams (Jaguars, Bucs, Dolphins) since 2013. Pittsburgh will cave under the September heat. Record: 2-1

Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, vs. Baltimore Ravens, 8:20 p.m. ET

Baltimore is averaging 28.8 points per game in its last four Heinz Field games, and the Ravens will be salty after losing three straight to the Steelers. Desperate to break a three-year playoff skid, Baltimore will bring the intensity to Pittsburgh, which starts slow for the second consecutive year. Record: 2-2

Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 7, vs. Atlanta Falcons, 1 p.m. ET

Shootout! Matt Ryan vs. Ben Roethlisberger is a delicious passing matchup. But this is about the time Le'Veon Bell finds his peak performance after missing training camp, shredding a good front seven for 100-plus yards. And Antonio Brown will be eager to perform in a matchup against Julio Jones, two kings in the receiver pantheon. Record: 3-2

Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, at Cincinnati Bengals, 1 p.m. ET

The Steelers simply know how to win in Cincinnati. They've won eight of nine games in Paul Brown Stadium since 2010. Nearly every one is close, and this one will be no different. Vontaze Burfict will be back from suspension, but the Bengals won't have the speed to keep up with the Steelers' offense. Record: 4-2

Week 7: Bye week

Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, vs. Cleveland Browns, 1 p.m.

The Browns have acquired enough talent to start winning games, but the Steelers will be energized coming off the bye and haven't lost to Cleveland at Heinz Field since 2003. Record: 5-2

Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, at Baltimore Ravens, 1 p.m.

Record: Not seeing these two battle it out in the December cold seems unnatural. But the Ravens still don't have a legitimate No. 1 receiver, which helps Pittsburgh contain Alex Collins and the running game on the way to a series sweep. Record: 6-2

Week 10: Thursday, Nov. 8, vs. Carolina Panthers, 8:20 p.m.

The Panthers are trying to preserve Cam Newton by running him less, but his dual-threat ability could give the Steelers problems in this matchup. The Panthers have the linebacker speed to combat Pittsburgh's quick passing game, which can help them overcome a 1-5 all-time record against the Steelers. Record: 6-3

Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, at Jacksonville Jaguars, 8:20 p.m.

Roethlisberger's home-road splits are well-documented (nearly three-to-one TD-INT ratio since 2015), but the Steelers will need his best in a matchup with playoff implications, and he'll deliver. The Steelers' defense was embarrassed twice by Jacksonville last year and will stop the bleeding. Record: 7-3

Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, at Denver Broncos, 4:25 p.m. ET

Denver still owns a top-10 defense and has won four of its past five at home over Pittsburgh. Cue one of the Steelers' curious rushing defense performances, which in this case will prove costly for playoff seeding. Record: 7-4

Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, vs. Los Angeles Chargers, 1 p.m. ET

Record: The Chargers have one of the league's most underrated rosters as far as talent, but the Steelers sense the playoffs slipping and decide to turn up the heat. Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers battle it out like it's the 2004 draft, putting up a combined 60-plus points. Record: 8-4

Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, at Oakland Raiders, 8:20 p.m. ET

This seems like a good time for a reminder that the Steelers have won seven straight prime-time games. Roethlisberger is at his best under the lights, which will be needed against Khalil Mack & Co. Record: 9-4

Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, vs. New England Patriots, 4:25 p.m. ET

The Steelers have a healthy Antonio Brown this time, which will be the difference in a second straight Week 15 matchup with New England. Tom Brady will figure out the Steelers' defensive plan eventually, but the Steelers offense always likes its chances at home in December. And Jesse James gets the touchdown he's waited a year to catch. Record: 10-4

Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, at New Orleans Saints, 4:25 p.m. ET

The Saints' magma-hot offense overpowers the Steelers as they come off the Patriots high. Drew Brees' quick passing game gives a much-improved secondary problems. Both teams will probably be vying for a top-two playoff seed in their respective conferences. Brees likes his chances at home. Record: 10-5

Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, vs. Cincinnati Bengals, 1 p.m. ET

Record: The Steelers will likely need this game to clinch a playoff bye and home game, and though the Bengals are always up for disrupting Pittsburgh's plans, Bell outplays Joe Mixon in a run-heavy matchup. Record: 11-5