AFC North Outlook
May 8, 2013
By Joe Nelson
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The NFL draft steals most of the attention in April and May but the recent release of the NFL schedules is more telling factor in the potential results this season. Take a look at the four teams in the AFC North in this schedule preview. This has been a competitive 3-team race in recent years and the North could again be a very competitive division with the Ravens, Bengals, and Steelers still standing out ahead of the Browns. The difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs could be very thin in this division and the schedules will play a pivotal role. The challenge for Cincinnati this season will be surviving the first month of the season as the early season schedule is very tough. The Bengals open at Chicago and while the Bears are in a transition season with a new head coach, expectations are high and the Bears have a lot to prove. The next two games are at home but the Bengals host Pittsburgh and Green Bay. In Week 4 the Bengals are at Cleveland in a big rivalry game and then in Week 5 the Bengals host New England. That could be a five-game set that derails the goals for the season or brings the Bengals to the forefront of the AFC. Cincinnati plays non-playoff teams in five of six games in the middle of the season and will get three of the final four at home to close the year.
Baltimore Ravens: The defending Super Bowl champions will face a tough slate in 2013 drawing Houston and Denver outside of the division and also having to battle all four NFC North teams. The AFC East draw softens the slate a bit potentially but the Ravens have the fifth toughest schedule in the NFL based on the 2012 win percentage of its opponents and by far the toughest slate in the AFC North by that measure. The season opens with a huge Thursday night game in Denver in a rematch of the epic playoff game from last season and the Ravens have several big games early in the season, with games against the Broncos, Browns, Texans, Packers, and Steelers in the first seven weeks. Baltimore only plays two games outside of the Eastern Time zone and the travel overall is pretty reasonable relative to the rest of the league. While there are some tough games late in the season four of the final six games of the season are at home and the Ravens will only play one road games outside of the division against a team that made the playoffs last season.
In the NFC draw the two NFC North playoff teams (Packers Vikings) from last season will both visit Baltimore and the Ravens also get to host New England in the AFC East draw as those pairings worked out favorably. The Ravens were just 10-6 last season despite the championship run so this was not a team that dominated in the regular season and with this slate a similar record is more likely than a record that would propel the Ravens to the top of the AFC. A fall to outside of the playoff picture is also possible if the Steelers rebound for a better season and the Bengals remain a very tough foe in the division.
Baltimore went 4-2 in division games last season and it will be tough to do better than that given the strong rivalries and home fields in this group as the AFC North was one of just two divisions that did not feature a team with a losing home record last year. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh could make up some ground on the Ravens and a letdown season after the championship is certainly possible. Baltimore does benefit from having most of the toughest games at home however, unlike the situation for Pittsburgh.
Baltimore Ravens 2013 Schedule Numbers:
2013 Opponents Win Percentage in 2012: .535
Games vs. 2012 Playoff Teams: 7 (five home, two away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 5,553
Back-to-Back road game sets: 1
Primetime Games: 4 (two Thursday, one Sunday night, one Monday)
Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have busted into the playoffs the past two seasons though they have not picked up a playoff win since 1991 and Boomer Esiason was still under center. Cincinnati appears to be headed towards being a consistent playoff contender however after being a consistent doormat for many years with a great young nucleus of talent. Cincinnati actually had the best point differential in this division last season, better than the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens and sights on a division title are realistic. The schedule for the Bengals this season lines up most of the toughest games at home but it may be a slate that is more difficult than it looks at first glance.
Five of eight home games for the Bengals are against 2012 playoff teams and the road schedule may be more difficult than the numbers imply as the Bears, Steelers, and Chargers should be viewed as playoff caliber teams even though they missed the postseason last year. Cincinnati won five games by seven or fewer points last season and it may be a season of close calls again this year with the line between being back in the playoffs and missing out being a thin one in a very competitive division.
Cincinnati Bengals 2013 Schedule Numbers:
2013 Opponents Win Percentage in 2012: .508
Games vs. 2012 Playoff Teams: 6 (five home, one away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 5,446
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 3 (one Thursday, one Sunday night, one Monday)
Cleveland Browns: In this division it will be tough for the Browns to move up and the 2013 schedule does not offer Cleveland great opportunities. Cleveland has gone 1-7 on the road each of the past two seasons and the Browns line up an incredibly difficult road schedule this season, facing five 2012 playoff teams. Two of the road games against non-playoff teams will come in the second of back-to-back road games and another 1-7 road season is certainly a possibility. The Browns are the only team in the division to draw Kansas City and Jacksonville which is certainly an advantage but the Chiefs could be a candidate for quick improvement and that matchup will also be a second straight road game for the Browns.
Cleveland will travel very few miles this season which could boost the chances of improving the season road record as the Browns won’t play a game outside of the Central or Eastern Time zones. Another edge the Browns may have in the schedule is that there is an opportunity for Cleveland to get off to a strong start this season with four of the first six games at home and three of those home games coming against fellow losing teams from 2012. A strong start could build some confidence for this team and the Browns won the home meetings with both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati last season as they may be able to take another step towards closing the gap in the division with the top three teams.
The Browns were just 5-11 last season but they were only outscored by just over four points per game on average for the season and the defense was respectable allowing 23 points per game. Cleveland has such a tough road schedule this season that major improvement seems unlikely but the Browns could produce a strong record at home with most of the favorable matchups coming in Cleveland. Getting into playoff position seems like a long shot but the Browns could be a team that sees a slight improvement and could even flirt with a .500 record should things fall favorably with the schedule being a factor in the improvement.
Cleveland Browns 2013 Schedule Numbers:
2013 Opponents Win Percentage in 2012: .492
Games vs. 2012 Playoff Teams: 7 (two home, five away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 3,990
Back-to-Back road game sets: 3
Primetime Games: 1 (one Thursday)
Pittsburgh Steelers: After a disappointing and injury filled 2012 season the Steelers seem like an appealing candidate for a bounce back season. Pittsburgh had one of the best defensive teams in the NFL last season but managed to go just 8-8 on the season, missing the playoffs and sliding into the third place slot in this division. Getting to play Tennessee and Oakland in the 3rd place draw is favorable and the Steelers will only play seven true road games with a trip to London in Week 4. Pittsburgh will play most of its toughest games on the road with a home schedule that only features two playoff teams, the two teams that made the postseason from the AFC North last season. Pittsburgh faces a slate that features the same 2012 winning percentage as Cleveland’s 4th place schedule which could make Pittsburgh a candidate to rise to the top of this division. Pittsburgh did lose three times at home last season but this is also a team that historically has been able to win on the road with some success as well.
Pittsburgh will have several very tough road matchups and the road games at New England and at Baltimore will both come in the second of back-to-back road games. Pittsburgh does close with three of the final four games of the season at home which could help a late playoff push if needed though a challenging
Week 16 game at Green Bay is ahead and that game follows up a possible Sunday night tilt with the Bengals. The road game at Baltimore is not only the second of back-to-back road games it comes on the heels of a division game with the Browns and will be on a short week with a Thursday night time slot so the Steelers might have a hard time improving on their 3-3 division mark from last season as several division games come in difficult spots on the schedule.
Pittsburgh is a team that could make a rise in the standings with improved health but there are some pieces missing from the great Steelers teams of years past. Another season teetering right on the edge of the playoffs either way is likely the result in 2013 again with the challenging road schedule ahead although this could again be a division where 10-6 is good enough to take the top spot.
Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 Schedule Numbers:
2013 Opponents Win Percentage in 2012: .492
Games vs. 2012 Playoff Teams: 7 (two home, four away, one neutral)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 8,585 (Includes 3,725 to London)
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 4 (one Thursday, two Sunday night, one Monday)
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