Nobody takes non-events like selecting college players or releasing a schedule and makes them into a big deal like the NFL. Kudos? I’m not sure, but last week’s release was yet another non-event event-I even saw “mock schedules” popping up, I guess some folks were trying to make up for their mock drafts.
So, what does it all mean for the AFC North teams? Who did the schedule makers help or hurt? I’ll take several cuts through the four teams’ schedules and then give you my overall analysis at the end.
One of the main status symbols for a team these days is the number of primetime games they play. Detroit is the only team that did not have at least one on their schedule, and I probably don’t need to explain why. This is not necessarily the final number since Sunday Night and (starting last season) Monday Night games can be flexed. Thursday night games will be exclusive to Amazon Prime Video subscribers for the first time this season, although they will be shown over the air in the local markets of the teams playing.
The networks love the Bengals this year, scheduling them for five primetime games (two Sunday night, two Monday night, and one Thursday night), the same amount as the always popular Steelers (one each on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and two on Sunday). The Ravens trail with three primetime games (one each on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday) and the Browns have two (Thursday and Sunday)
None of the AFC North teams are involved in any of the international games (including Germany for the first time), avoiding a major disruption during the season.
The AFC North teams’ schedules break down like this-six divisional games, four games against the AFC East, four games against the NFC South, and the (infamous?) 17th game. Game 17 matchups have the Ravens vising the NY Giants, the Bengals traveling to Dallas, the Steelers heading to Philadelphia, and the Browns playing at Washington against the Commanders (no, I guess we shouldn’t have expected them to come up with a better name than that).
You’ll notice these are all away games for the divisional teams, meaning they will play 8 home and 9 away this season, the opposite of what they drew last year when they were each visited by a team from the NFC West, determined by their final position the prior season (1st place plays 1st place, etc.)
I know these schedules are very difficult to come up with, but there are some glaring imbalances every year. Take the Ravens; they play their first four games against AFC East teams, and four of the six divisional games are bunched in the last five weeks of the season, including both Steelers games. I think there should be a policy of playing each team in your division once in each half of the season. Front or backloading a schedule makes part of the season more important than the rest, and if your team is hit hard by injuries like the Ravens were late last season, the team’s record is not a fair representation of how good or bad the team actually is.
Ok, I’m off the soapbox to look deeper into each team’s schedule:
Ravens – I’ve touched on the backloading of divisional games, but the schedule leading up to that is quite manageable. The AFC East gauntlet could be challenging, but the Ravens draw Miami and Buffalo at home. Weeks 2-5 could be tough (Miami, at New England, Buffalo, Cincinnati) and Baltimore will likely have to beat either the Bills or Bengals if they want to challenge for the division title. The schedule for weeks 6-13, wrapped around a week 10 bye, features only one 2021 playoff team-Tampa Bay on the road on Thursday night.
The Ravens finish the season at Cincinnati, not something they wanted to see given their history of late season games with the Bengals. Ravens’ fans will hope it means something, but preferably not everything.
Bengals – Cincinnati plays a big boy’s first place schedule this year. They did go 4-2 against playoff teams last year, and they have 8 2021 playoff teams to face this season. Thery have a bit of a soft spot in their schedule in weeks 6-9 (at New Orleans, Atlanta, at Cleveland, Carolina) heading into their week 10 bye, but other than that they will have to bring it every week, especially since there’s no sneaking up on anyone this year. How they transition from the hunter to the hunted will be a defining storyline of their season.
Cincy’s Sunday Night game at Baltimore in week 5 could be huge. Other games of note are their rematch at home vs KC in week 13 and a Monday night visit from Buffalo in week 17-a pretty good way to finish up New Year’s weekend.
Steelers – Pittsburgh, with QB TBD heading into training camp, get the most challenging part of their schedule in the first half before their week 9 bye. They have road games at Cincinnati, Cleveland, Buffalo, Miami, and Philadelphia (all are potential losses), putting more pressure on their home games with New England, NY Jets, and Tampa Bay. Whichever QB, Trubisky or Pickett, starts the season at QB1 will do well to make it to the bye, which could be time to change horses.
If the Steelers can manage a 4-4 record, they have more winnable games in the second half, including all three AFC North teams at home (balance people, how about some balance?). The schedule gives them a reasonable chance to make a stretch run again this year, but they have to avoid digging a deep hole early.
Browns – Cleveland’s schedule is the opposite of a candy bar-the soft, chewy parts are on the edges and the hard part is in the middle. The Browns open at Carolina (and Baker Mayfield? Not likely but no telling how that drama plays out), then hosts the Jets and Pittsburgh before heading to Atlanta. That hard middle? Look at weeks 5-12 (with a week 9 bye); Chargers, Patriots, at Baltimore, Bengals, at Miami, at Buffalo, Tampa Bay. That is a stretch that I believe will expose the team’s character, or lack of it.
Since it appears that we can cancel the Deshaun Watson suspension watch until 2023 (but then again, who knows how THAT drama will play out?), the Browns should be fully loaded. If they can turn down the off-the-field noise (I’m thinking they won’t), their finale at Pittsburgh could be a big one.
Summary – I think the Bengals and Ravens have to like their schedules. Cincy gets most of their tougher games at home, and I think, even after my rant about balance, that the schedule backloading could work to Baltimore’s advantage as they work players back into the lineup from their serious injuries last year.
The Steelers did NOT need a rough early schedule, but that’s what they got. Their season could get off track before it really gets rolling, but don’t underestimate Mike Tomlin’s ability to keep that from happening. Cleveland was only 1-5 vs. playoff teams last season and lost a total of six games by less than a touchdown. Yes, that was with Baker Mayfield at QB, but a lot of other key players and coaches are back this year. I’m very skeptical about their ability to get through the tough part of their schedule and remain in playoff contention.
Here’s the five AFC North games I’m really looking forward to this season:
Week 3 – Steelers at Browns Thursday 8:15 PM –This provides a good early look at how these two teams match up in the race for third in the division. How will Pittsburgh’s new QB manage the Dawg Pound? How will Deshaun Watson fare in his first primetime game for the Browns? Interesting.
Week 4 – Bills at Ravens Sunday 1:00 – How can this game not be fun to watch? It will be an early measure of two teams with eyes on the Super Bowl, and it won’t be in Buffalo in the winter.
Week 5 – Bengals at Ravens Sunday 8:20 PM –This is the Ravens’ only scheduled home prime time game, and I’m sure the fans will be lusting for revenge after Cincy slapped their team around twice last season. If the Ravens loose in week 4 to the Bills, they will really need a win here.
Week 8 – Ravens at Buccaneers Thursday 8:15 PM – It’s always interesting to watch the Ravens match up against Tom Brady. Let’s see if the old man has any magic left in that right arm of his.
Week 13 – Chiefs at Bengals Sunday 4:25 PM –Mahomes vs. Burrow, round 3. The first two rounds have gone to Burrow and the Bengals; I’m eager to see what Andy Reid and Mahomes have cooked up for another shootout.
I’m looking forward to another exciting season of hard-hitting, intense AFC North football, I hope you are too!
Fascinating Factoid of the Week:
The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers have been in the same division since 1970, playing each other 103 times, but never in a season opener until this season. What were the odds of that?
What are your thoughts on the AFC North schedules? Let’s talk about it on the message board, and you can find me on Twitter @jimjfootball
Until next time, remember, it’s good to look back as long as you live forward.
Jim Johnson spent most of his life in Maryland, growing up with the Orioles, the Colts, Terps, and later Ravens. He started his sports writing career as “The Courtmaster,” covering the Terps and ACC hoops and was a frequent guest on Bob Haynie’s old WNST show and other sports talk across the region. He is currently in his second run at BSL. After previously covering Maryland and Big Ten Football, he now writes about the NFL, primarily the action in the AFC North. Jim covers both current and historic stories, seeking perspective and having fun in the process.