Kevin Gorman: Circle Dec. 17 on the Steelers schedule
The Steelers have made no secret of their Super Bowl aspirations this season, and the second-half stage is set for them.
They started 6-2 for the sixth time in 11 seasons under Mike Tomlin, a good sign given that they reached the Super Bowl in two of those seasons (2008 and '10).
It was a strong start for a second-half team, as the Steelers are known after finishing 6-2 or better in the final eight games seven times in the past decade.
Last season is a perfect example: They finished the regular season on a seven-game winning streak.
Not only do the Steelers have a two-game lead in the AFC North, but they also are tied for the best record in the conference with the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots.
The Steelers already beat the Chiefs on Oct. 15, so the date to circle on your calendar is Dec. 17. That's when Tom Brady and the Patriots visit Heinz Field.
You know, Big Brother.
That's how Ben Roethlisberger referred to the relationship between the Patriots and Steelers last February: Big brother and little brother.
I'll let you guess which one is which, considering New England is 8-3 against the Steelers since they drafted Big Ben in 2004. One of the Patriots' losses was with Brady out with an injury.
Sure, the Steelers have seven other games to play, starting with a visit to Indianapolis next Sunday. But you know, and I know and the Steelers know they are on another collision course with the Patriots.
Of the other seven opponents, the Steelers are 3-0 against their three division foes, and the Colts, Packers and Texans lost their star quarterbacks to injuries.
That guarantees nothing, especially when you consider the Steelers lost to the Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars even though Mike Glennon and Blake Bortles combined to pass for 196 yards in those games.
But the Patriots playing in the AFC championship game is the closest to a guarantee as there is in the NFL, especially with Brady healthy.
The Patriots have made six consecutive AFC championship game appearances. That includes the 36-17 victory over the Steelers last year in Foxboro, where the Patriots are 17-3 in the postseason since 2002.
So the Steelers need another strong second half, but more than anything, they need to beat the Patriots. They need to to clinch home-field advantage, primarily to avoid a trip to New England.
Here's why I think they will: The Steelers start the second half healthy, with the bye week giving right tackle Marcus Gilbert and defensive end Stephon Tuitt time to heal from their injuries. When healthy, the Steelers have been dominant.
The Steelers also have several playmakers they didn't have against the Patriots last season in running back Le'Veon Bell, who left the AFC title game with a groin injury, and receivers Martavis Bryant, who was serving a year-long suspension, and rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster.
And the Steelers shored up a secondary that Brady shredded for 384 yards and three touchdowns. They have the NFL's No. 2 pass defense, despite allowing Detroit's Matthew Stafford to throw for 423 yards (but no touchdowns in five red-zone trips).
This is the biggest thing: For all of the talk about distractions, the Steelers are loose in their locker room.
Their sights are set on the Super Bowl, and they know they can't count on getting there without going through New England the way the Steelers did in '08 and '10.
The Steelers also don't have to win their final seven games just to make the playoffs, like last year. They might win seven second-half games, anyway.
But the Steelers know that their road to the Super Bowl goes through the Patriots, their chances of beating the Patriots are better at home and their game Dec. 17 is the key to the second half.
Not to put too much pressure on one regular-season game, but beating the Patriots in December could position the Steelers to beat them in the playoffs.