While next week’s NFL Draft will get far more attention, this week’s release of the NFL schedules will be more important to the success or failure of any NFL team. The schedules are not created equally and with just 16 games there can be great disparities between the various paths to the playoffs. Here is a look at the AFC North and the upcoming schedule for each team.
Baltimore Ravens: Last year the Ravens went 8-0 at home and won both meetings with rival Pittsburgh to take the AFC North crown, winning the tiebreaker with the Steelers as both teams were 12-4. Baltimore won just barely over the Texans in the playoffs and then lost narrowly against the Patriots in the AFC Championship, a game they easily could have won with a couple of late miscues. The Ravens reload for the 2012 season with high expectations but they will deal with a difficult schedule. The North teams will play the AFC West teams which will not present any great threat but they also must play all four NFC East teams.
Baltimore draws a first-place schedule and will be the only North team that has to play the Patriots and the Texans, a pretty severe disadvantage given how close the division race between Pittsburgh and Baltimore often is. Baltimore will have a difficult time delivering a perfect home record again this season as all but one home foe was 8-8 or better last season and that game is a short week game against Cleveland on a Thursday night following a huge Sunday night game with New England. Baltimore will play in primetime in three of the first four weeks of the season and the early season schedule is challenging.
Baltimore will play just three teams (four games) that finished with a losing record in 2011 as there won’t be many easy weeks in the schedule. A particularly daunting stretch comes in mid-November as the Ravens play at Pittsburgh then face cross country travel to play at San Diego the following week, before the quick return visit of the Steelers at home. Baltimore should still be considered a contender in the AFC but matching the 12-4 record of last season is unlikely. The AFC North benefited from playing the AFC South and NFC West teams last year and every team in this division could see a decline in record from last season.
Cincinnati Bengals: At the start of the 2011 season the Bengals were almost universally projected to be the worst team in the NFL. Those looking at the schedule saw a different picture however as Cincinnati was dealt one of the easiest slates in the league and the early season schedule was very light, allowing a team with a rookie QB to be able to survive and grow quickly. The Bengals ended up 9-7 and made into the playoffs, losing to Houston in the Wild Card round and the expectations will certainly be elevated this year.
While there is a lot to like with the young talent on the team, Cincinnati did not beat a single playoff team last season and they went 0-4 against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. This year the out of division schedule will be much more difficult and a step back season can be expected even if the Bengals look like a better and more complete team than a year ago. The one benefit the Bengals have is that they are a rare playoff team that returns to a third place schedule and facing Miami and Jacksonville might actually be more favorable than facing Buffalo and Indianapolis this season.
Cincinnati will open the season with three of the first four games on the road including an opening game at Baltimore. Overall the early season schedule is again favorable as the Ravens are the lone returning playoff team that Cincinnati will face in the first six games. The second-half schedule will be a challenge however as there are difficult home games with the Broncos, Giants, Raiders, Cowboys, and Ravens being the opponents for the final five home contests. The final three road games are in San Diego, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh so a second half collapse is a real possibility for this team as it will be a much tougher slate than last year.
Cleveland Browns: The Browns haven’t played their cards just yet but this is a team that could be starting over with another new QB. Cleveland went 4-12 last season including 0-6 in the division and with three AFC playoff teams from 2011 returning in the division it will be tough to pick up ground. Cleveland was 1-7 on the road last season and seven of the eight road games this year will be against teams that had a .500 or better record last season. The home schedule is slightly more favorable but they face several teams that underachieved last year and should be tougher in 2012 such as Philadelphia, Buffalo, San Diego, and Kansas City.
The Browns will also face two sets of brutal back-to-back road games, getting Baltimore and the Giants back-to-back in Weeks 4 and 5 and then closing the year with road games at Denver and at Pittsburgh. Cleveland plays the Colts in the first-half of the season which should be preferable given that Indianapolis is in transition but it will be a road game and the Browns do not figure to be favored in very many games, perhaps hosting Buffalo in Week 3, at Indianapolis in Week 6, or possibly hosting Kansas City or Washington late in the year.
Cleveland was statistically among the worst teams in the NFL on both sides of the ball last year so there are far bigger issues than the schedule at the forefront for the Browns. Cleveland went 4-12 last year against a pretty favorable schedule and this year’s slate will be more difficult. The Browns did start 3-3 last season before things got ugly late in the year and there were several close losses but with a tough early season schedule it may not be a good idea to put rookies in key spots.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The 2011 season for the Steelers will be remembered for the playoff loss to Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos more than anything else but this was a 12-4 team despite battling injuries most of the season. All four losses came against division winning teams last year and while this year’s schedule is tougher than last year’s slate there is a big advantage in comparisons with Baltimore as the Steelers get the Titans and Jets instead of the Texans and Patriots.
Pittsburgh figures to be a solid favorite in every home game this season as the only two home games against teams that made the playoffs last season are the division games with Baltimore and Cincinnati. The Steelers open the season in primetime at Denver and while the Broncos could be a tough team with Peyton Manning, playing them in Week 1 should be a favorable situation given the massive transformation of the Denver offense. Pittsburgh has an early Week 4 bye week which might make the stretch run a challenge, particularly for a veteran team that has had plenty of injury issues in recent years however.
The late season schedule is fairly favorable as three of the final four games will be at home. The big stretch of the season will be in the second half playing Baltimore twice in three weeks and also playing at the Super Bowl champion Giants in Week 9. The Steelers also play two sets of back-to-back road games this season which could present some challenges. Overall Pittsburgh has to feel good about this draw. The AFC North had fairly light schedules last year but the Steelers had the toughest of those draws and this year that won’t be the case, which could help Pittsburgh to get back on top of this division after falling just short last year.