Daunting schedule on paper

Evaluating a particular team’s schedule before the start of a season is akin to trying to hit a moving target. One season’s playoff contender can become next season’s cupcake, especially in the NFL where parity reigns supreme.

Even with all of that, even in a league where five teams that made the playoffs in 2006 didn’t repeat in 2007, the Steelers schedule in 2008 is brutal.

In this case, what constitutes “brutal” is:

• Eight of the Steelers’ 10 games outside the AFC North Division are against teams that made the playoffs last season. Two other games are against division rival Cleveland, which only missed the playoffs because of tiebreakers.

• They play games against teams quarterbacked by four of the top five passers from 2007, and the only reason it’s only four of the top five is because their own quarterback — Ben Roethlisberger — was ranked No. 2 in the league.

• The two most recent Super Bowl champions are on the schedule, as are the New England Patriots, who won back-to-back titles in 2004-05.

• The combined winning percentage of the teams on the schedule is .598. By contrast, the combined winning percentage of New England’s opponents is .387.

“You have to be careful how much you read into it in advance because every year is different and every year teams go up and down,” said team president Art Rooney II. “Even though it is ranked as one of the toughest schedules, you never know. Certainly going in it is one of the tougher groups of teams that I have seen in a long time, particularly in terms of the home schedule.”

If the Steelers were a team that needed an attractive home schedule to sell tickets, they certainly would have one in 2008. In addition to the games against division opponents, the Steelers will host the defending champion New York Giants, Indianapolis,San Diego and Dallas.

In terms of marquee players, that means Eli Manning, Plaxico Burress, Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Bob Sanders, Dwight Freeney, LaDainian Tomlinson, Shawne Merriman, Tony Romo, Terrell Owens and DeMarcus Ware all will be cavorting on the turf at Heinz Field.

“The number of premier teams that are visiting Heinz Field this year will make it an interesting year for our fans,” said Rooney, “and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”In the NFL, challenges presented by the schedule also include having to adjust to the different days and times during which the games are played.

The Steelers have five prime-time games — two Sundays, two Mondays and a Thursday — and six others will start at 4:15 p.m. The networks love prime time and the late time slot on Sundays, but players and coaches prefer the normalcy of 1 p.m. kickoffs.

“Probably the teams that drafted in the top 10 of the first round are probably playing all 1 o’clock games, so if you have a winning team and you are competitive, then you’re going to be playing in the prime-time games,” said Rooney. “That goes with the territory,and we will take it.”