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Steelers’ schedule only gets tougher

New England, Dallas, Baltimore and Tennessee, a combined 31-13, are up next.

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers can’t escape their schedule. They’ve known since it was released last spring that it might be the NFL’s toughest, and they didn’t complain then.

Their closing stretch is about as difficult as it can get, but they realize that whining or grumbling won’t get them through it.

What will help? Playing better than they did as the season wound down last year.

The Steelers (8-3) own a one-game lead over Baltimore (7-4) in the AFC North as they begin a month’s worth of games against division-leading or contending teams: the Patriots (7-4) on Sunday, followed by the Cowboys (7-4), Ravens and Titans (10-1). The four are a combined 31-13, and only the Dallas game is in Pittsburgh.

Their only losing record opponent remaining is Cleveland (4-7) during the season’s final weekend. As of now, the Steelers will play only three sub-.500 teams during their final 10 games: Cleveland, San Diego (4-7) and Cincinnati (1-9-1). They’ve already played the Giants (10-1), Colts (7-4) and Redskins (7-4), plus the Ravens in the first of their two games.

“The stretch of games we’ve got, they’re all going to be playoff atmosphere games,” wide receiver Hines Ward said. “Every team we play has the opportunity to make the playoffs this year and you might end up seeing those teams again.”

For comparison’s sake, the contending Colts’ next four opponents are a combined 9-34-1 and include what may be the NFL’s two worst teams in the Lions (0-11) and Bengals. That’s important from the Steelers’ perspective because the Colts trail them by a game in the overall AFC standings, but own a tiebreaker after winning in Pittsburgh 24-20 on Nov. 9.

“Now you’re getting down to it, teams are starting to separate, you’re starting to get a clear picture of who’s going to make the playoffs and who isn’t,” defensive end Aaron Smith said. “We’ve got a chance to get there ourselves so, if you’re not excited, there’s something wrong with you.”

Evaluating the schedule in April can be misleading because teams that were good a year ago sometimes don’t match those seasons; the Chargers (11-5 in 2007) and Browns (10-6 a year ago) are prime examples.

But there were so many traditionally strong teams on their schedule, the Steelers knew all of them wouldn’t be down in the same season. Also, they’re opposing the NFC East at a time when all four teams are competitive; the Eagles (5-5-1), currently last in the division, beat them 15-6.

The Steelers made the playoffs a year ago but didn’t coast into them, losing three of their final four regular season games. Those losses cost them a first-round bye and forced them to play a wild-card game they lost at home to Jacksonville 31-29.

Injuries hurt the Steelers then and could be a factor again, with running back Willie Parker (knee) hurting, left tackle Marvel Smith (back) sidelined indefinitely and defensive end Brett Keisel (knee) likely out the next three weeks.

“Hopefully we can be a team on the rise,” tight end Heath Miller said. “I felt like last year we really weren’t playing our best ball this time of the year. You want to try to be a team that gets on a run in December into the playoffs.”

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