By Jeremy Hritz
I have been posing several questions this week, and this article will be no different. In fact, it may be the most important one that I have asked over the last couple of days.
Who will win the AFC North this season?
In years past, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the instinctive response to this question, but with the Cincinnati Bengals steadily rising over the past two seasons and with the Baltimore Ravens getting over the hump with a Super Bowl victory, Pittsburgh is no longer a guarantee. In fact, there is a very real chance that the Steelers could miss the playoffs for a second season in a row if they don’t rise to meet the level of play of their division foes.
With the regular season only a little over a month away, let’s take a look at the path standing between each AFC North team and a division title.
Let’s start with the Ravens, who finished 10-6 in 2012 overall and 4-2 in the division, losing once to the Steelers at home, and once to the Bengals at the conclusion of the season in what ultimately was a meaningless game. This season, the Ravens have the fifth best strength of schedule at .538, and while many will argue that the number doesn’t mean anything, with a schedule that includes away games at Denver and Chicago, and difficult home stands against the Texans, Packers, Vikings, and Patriots, and divisional games against the Steelers and Bengals, repeating as division winner, or even as a playoff team seems to be a monumental task. Also considering the numerous departures of upper echelon players, though they have been replaced by some proven talent, 10 wins will be a major accomplishment with the schedule they have been dealt.
Moving over to the Bengals who finished 10-6 and 3-3 in the division last season with losses to each AFC North team, they head into the 2013 season staring at the 12th most difficult schedule in the NFL at .508. The Bengals most challenging road games outside of the AFC North will be in Chicago and possibly San Diego, considering the travel demand. At home, the Bengals will square off against the Packers, Patriots, Colts, and Vikings. The Bengals, too, have a formidable schedule, and like the Ravens, a 10 win season would be considered quite a feat.
The Cleveland Browns strength of schedule comes in at .492, which is the same as the Steelers. They have some serious road tests against the Vikings, Packers, Patriots, and though the Chiefs had a down year last year, when Cleveland travels to Arrowhead this season, it could prove to be a daunting task as a result of the rebooting of the organization led by Andy Reid. Outside of their battles against Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cincinnati at home, their other serious test will be against the Bears.
We have taken a look at the Steelers schedule several times this offseason, and as mentioned earlier, their schedule is considered the 22nd most difficult in the league. However, road games against Oakland, where they always struggle, New England, and Green Bay, not to mention their journey to London to battle the Vikings, Pittsburgh has a difficult route to the playoffs in front of them. Like the Browns, their most difficult showdown at home, in addition to their AFC North foes, will be against the Bears.
Overall, the 2013 AFC North strength of schedule is a rigorous one as a result of playing the NFC North, and when factoring in the toughness of all of the teams in the division, the team that claims the crown will have definitely earned the right to compete for a Lombardi.
So with the 2013 schedules considered in this year’s AFC North, what is your predicted order of finish? And, do you foresee the Steelers returning to the top?