AFC North: 2012 NFL Schedule

ESPN's John Clayton compiled the top 10 matchups to watch for the 2012 season. Not surprisingly, the AFC North had a presence in the rankings.

The Steelers-Ravens rivalry was third on Clayton's list, although I believe it should have been second at worst. Here is Clayton's take on the Steelers-Ravens, who play Nov. 18 and Dec. 2:
This has become the best rivalry in the NFL now that Joe Flacco has shown he can win against the Steelers' defense. This game features two of the best hitting teams in football and some of the most ardent fans. Last season, the Ravens finally took the AFC North title, which should cause the Steelers to be more determined.

The other top matchup involving an AFC North team is the Steelers-Broncos game, which will be played on Sept. 9. There should be no arguments on this one. Here is Clayton's breakdown of the season-opening meeting:
Even though this is a repeat of a 2011 playoff game, the stakes could be even bigger. The Steelers had an entire offseason to reflect on losing in overtime against Tim Tebow when he caught them in an untimely blitz. Now they have to come back to the Mile High City to face a Broncos offense that should be better with Peyton Manning.

The one matchup I would add to this list is Ravens-Patriots. The reason goes beyond this being a rematch of last season's dramatic AFC championship game. The last three regular-season games between these teams have been decided by a a total of 12 points.
Our friends at numberFire have crunched all the schedules and determined the Baltimore Ravens have the second-hardest road to the playoffs. The group rated the five toughest and easiest schedules based on their calculations.

The Ravens, who were one game away from reaching the Super Bowl, face the two teams who played in the Super Bowl last season (the New England Patriots and New York Giants). Baltimore finishes the regular season by playing five playoff teams in the last seven weeks.

You'll need a subscription to see the entire Insider piece Insider, but here's the portion on the Ravens:
Starting QB Joe Flacco recently claimed he was the NFL's best quarterback. He'll have his chance to back up that claim this season against a difficult set of opponents that includes matchups against all AFC No. 1 seeds, their strong division rivals and the NFC East. Do not let the fact that the NFC East did not grade out spectacularly record-wise in 2011 fool you. The East is still strong with dominant forces in the Eagles and Cowboys, not to mention the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Expect the ageless Ravens defense, however, to rise to the challenge and secure another playoff bid.

Based on how the schedule makers laid out the season, I think the Pittsburgh Steelers have the toughest road in the AFC North. The Steelers only have two home games before Oct. 28 and travel to two AFC West teams in the first three weeks of the season. To increase the level of difficulty, Pittsburgh's bye comes in Week 4. That's 13 straight weeks without a break to finish the season.
This is a special edition of your AFC North wake-up call. You can read my reaction and analysis when the schedules were released Tuesday night for the Bengals, Browns, Ravens and Steelers.

Here are some of my other thoughts regarding the schedules:

REUNIONS AND REMATCHES

Sept. 9 -- Pittsburgh at Denver. The Steelers will only be eight months removed from losing an overtime playoff game there. Instead of playing Tim Tebow this time, Pittsburgh gets Peyton Manning in his Broncos' debut.

Sept. 23 -- New England at Baltimore. This is a rematch of last season's dramatic AFC championship game, when Lee Evans failed to hold onto a potential winning touchdown catch and Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal that would've sent the game into overtime.

Nov. 25 -- Oakland at Cincinnati. Carson Palmer makes his return to Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium on Thanksgiving weekend. Palmer was 27-22 in Cincinnati during his eight years as the Bengals' starting quarterback.

Dec. 9 -- Kansas City at Cleveland. Peyton Hillis comes back to Cleveland Browns Stadium after a tumultuous 2011 season with the Browns. Of course, this is assuming that there hasn't been a new curse.

Dec. 16 -- Washington at Cleveland. The Browns' final regular-season home game should give them an up-close look at what might have been. Robert Griffin III is expected to be starting for the Redskins after the Browns failed to trade up to draft him.

STRANGE SCHEDULING

The Steelers and the Ravens play each other twice in a span of 14 days. This has never occurred before in this rivalry.

The Bengals and Ravens open the season and close it out. There will be 110 days that separate their meetings.

The Browns begin their season against the Eagles after playing the third preseason game, which is when the starters typically play the longest, against Philadelphia.

BY THE NUMBERS

0 -- Number of times the Bengals ended the season with two games against AFC North opponents before 2012.

2 -- Steelers' home games before Oct. 28. Pittsburgh has trips to Denver, Oakland, Tennessee and Cincinnati before that date.

3 -- Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning) that the Ravens will face in December.

13 -- Season openers at home for the Browns in the past 14 years. Cleveland is 1-11 in those openers at home during that span.

WHAT THEY'RE SAYING

Browns coach Pat Shumur: "I think that opening the year at home against the Eagles will be great for our players and our fans. It will be exciting to play a team, an organization and a coach for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect. It will be a good test for our team. Ending the year in two of the tougher venues in the NFL [at Denver and Pittsburgh] also will present a challenge."

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis: "We start the season with a great opportunity, playing our division champion and AFC semifinalist [Baltimore Ravens] at their place. You never know at this point where the biggest challenges on a schedule are going to be, but obviously it looks like we also will have two very crucial division games [at the Steelers and home against the Ravens] to close the schedule.”
As everyone knows by now, the NFL is releasing its schedule at 7 tonight. Remember to check back here for reaction and analysis to each team's schedule.

Here are some things to remember, compliments of our friends at ESPN Stats & Information:
  • The division plays every team in the AFC West and NFC East.
  • Everybody gets at least one primetime game now that the NFL Network Thursday night schedule runs the full season.
  • There are three playoff rematches for division teams: Steelers-Broncos, Ravens-Texans and Ravens-Patriots.
  • There are eight Super Bowl rematches this season including Steelers-Cowboys and Ravens-Giants.
  • Here's hoping the Steelers-Raiders game will be played on Dec. 23 this year. It was on that day 40 years ago that the Immaculate Reception occurred.

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