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AFC North Preview

AFC North Preview

AFC North Preview
By Joe Nelson

The NFL draft gets all the attention in the spring, but the recent release of the 2014 schedule can be a more telling factor in how a team will fare next season. Take a look at the four teams in the AFC North in this schedule preview. The Bengals, Ravens, and Steelers each have three division titles in the last nine years, but for a change the Browns have grabbed some of the spotlight this spring. The North should be a competitive division in 2014 with all four teams expecting to be in the playoff mix.

Baltimore Ravens: After the surprise Super Bowl run two seasons ago, the Ravens fell to 8-8 last season and missed the playoffs after blowout losses in the final two games of the season. The Ravens lost five of seven games in the middle of the season last season with each loss by six or fewer points, as this was a competitive team that was not far from being more of a factor in the AFC. After allowing 49 points in the opening game, the Ravens were formidable on defense most of the season until the final two weeks, but the offense was very disappointing, particularly in the running game. Highly-paid quarterback Joe Flacco also failed to reach 300 yards passing in any of the final 10 games of the season. Baltimore catches a break with a third-place schedule after losing the tiebreaker with Pittsburgh in the 2013 standings. It is certainly debatable whether playing San Diego and Miami is preferable to playing Kansas City and New York in that draw, however.

The entire North will play the AFC South this season, which should provide an opportunity for the North teams to move up in the AFC, but the NFC South draw could be challenging. Baltimore has one of the tougher draws among the division in those matchups having to play on the road against Indianapolis, Houston, and New Orleans. The Ravens open the season with three consecutive division games, so Baltimore will know where it stands early and getting the road trip to Cleveland in early should be an advantage given the transition for the Browns. The Ravens will actually have five of the six division games complete by Week 9 and the back half of the schedule looks more favorable than the front, as Baltimore plays teams that combined to go 18-46 last season in the final four weeks.

Baltimore Ravens 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .461 (28/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 6 (three home, three away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 6,425
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 3 (1 Thursday, 1 Sunday Night, 1 Monday)

Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have improved in the win column four straight seasons, making the playoffs each of the last three years, despite going 0-3 in the postseason. The Bengals have the most stability in the division which is a surprise given the tumultuous run for this franchise in the previous two decades. The 2014 schedules does not look overly difficult with only five games against 2013 playoff teams and one of the weaker win percentages for opponents based on last season’s record. That said, the Bengals are the only team in the division that has to play Denver or New England, getting both of them in primetime games this season. In a very tough first half of the schedule, the Bengals will play both games with Baltimore, plus games with three 2013 playoffs teams in the first eight weeks.

Cincinnati will also have to play three consecutive road games in November, going from New Orleans to Houston, and then to Tampa Bay. The final four weeks could be very tough with home games against the Steelers and Broncos and road division games in cold weather against the Browns and Steelers. Cincinnati has to play five of the final seven games of the season on the road as Cincinnati has what looks like the toughest schedule in the division, also having to play at Indianapolis and at New Orleans. Denver and Seattle were the only two teams in the NFL to have a stronger point differential than the Bengals last season, so this has to be considered an elite team, but it would not be a surprise to see a slight decline for the Bengals in 2014.

Cincinnati Bengals 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .469 (23/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 5 (two home, three away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 4,857
Back-to-Back road game sets: 1 back-to-back-to-back
Primetime Games: 3 (1 Thursday, 1 Sunday Night, 1 Monday)

Cleveland Browns: The Browns have been in the news a lot this spring, some of it with excitement with Johnny Manziel drafted, but Cleveland also was dealt very tough news with Josh Gordon potentially suspended for the season after his breakout 2013 season. Cleveland had to go through three quarterbacks last season and finding stability at that position has been a constant challenge for the organization. Adding Manziel to look over Brian Hoyer’s shoulder may not be the ideal approach, but Hoyer was not able to stay healthy last season. The schedule for the Browns in 2014 looks promising with only two 2013 playoff teams on the schedule in the first 13 weeks. That lighter slate early could ease the coaching transition with Mike Pettine taking over this season. The Browns lost the final seven games of last season and another tough finish could be ahead with four of the final six games on the road and a closing slate of Indianapolis, Cincinnati, at Carolina, at Baltimore.

Each of the last three seasons, Cleveland has gone 1-7 on the road, but there are winnable road games on the schedule this season, playing at Tennessee, at Jacksonville, at Atlanta, and at Buffalo outside of the division. Cleveland will have the second-lightest travel schedule in the NFL in terms of distance, going fewer than 4,000 miles for eight road games with no game further west than Nashville. While the excitement is growing in Cleveland and the Browns will get more national play in the media this season, breaking out of the basement in the division still seems like a long shot.

Cleveland Browns 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .465 (26/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 5 (three home, two away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 3,634
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 1 (1 Thursday)

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers wound up 8-8 last season despite starting 0-4 and eventually sitting at 2-6 at the midpoint of the season. Pittsburgh’s late season surge still left them short of the playoffs and it was an atypical Steelers squad that really struggled defensively. The Steelers were also a very poor rushing team on offense and Pittsburgh draws a second-place schedule in 2014. Pittsburgh has the fewest travel miles in 2014 of any team in the NFL as they will not travel further west than Nashville, but the Steelers will have some tough travel situations with four separate sets of back-to-back road games. Despite missing the playoffs the last two seasons, Pittsburgh will play five primetime games including playing three national TV night games in a five-week span in the middle of the season. Pittsburgh had a painful start to the 2013 season, but on paper, a more promising first half seems likely even with four of the first six games on the road.

Four of the first six opponents this season won four or fewer games last season, so the Steelers could rise to the top of the division early. Both games with the Bengals are in the final five weeks of the season as are tricky home games with New Orleans and Kansas City as well as a road date with the Falcons as the closing month will be challenging. The Steelers are one of two teams to have a late Week 12 bye, the latest in the league, and it will remain to be seen if a team that was injury plagued the past two seasons can hold up without a break for much of the season.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .469 (23/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 6 (four home, two away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 3,537
Back-to-Back road game sets: 4
Primetime Games: 5 (1 Thursday, 2 Sunday Night, 2 Monday)

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