AFC North: AFC Schedule Analysis 2011

Breakdown: The Cleveland Browns have the toughest strength of schedule in the AFC North. But it's only 19th overall in the NFL, which gives the Browns a chance to improve on last year's 5-11 record.

Cleveland rookie head coach Pat Shurmur has a golden opportunity to get off to a fast start with a home game in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Both teams are rebuilding and this may be Cincinnati's first game without franchise quarterback Carson Palmer, who has threatened to retire. At least one Ohio team will start off 1-0, while the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens also battle it out in Week 1.

The Browns' only prime-time game this year will be against the Steelers on Thursday Dec. 8 in Pittsburgh.

Complaint department: Although I don't expect the Browns to contend this year, three consecutive road games in December could end any playoff push. The Browns will play at Pittsburgh, at the Arizona Cardinals and at Baltimore in Weeks 14-16. That could be a three-game losing streak toward the end of the season. The Browns also will host the reigning AFC champion Steelers in the regular-season finale on Jan. 1.

Interesting ties: There are interesting storylines involving two NFC West teams. Browns president Mike Holmgren's current team will face his former team -- the Seattle Seahawks -- on Oct. 23. Cleveland also will host the St. Louis Rams on Nov. 13. Shurmur was St. Louis' offensive coordinator last season.

Browns Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, Cincinnati, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, at Indianapolis, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, Miami, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 5: BYE
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, at Oakland, 4:05 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, Seattle, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, at San Francisco, 4:15 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, at Houston, 1:00 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, Jacksonville, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, at Cincinnati, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, Baltimore, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Thursday, Dec. 8, at Pittsburgh, 8:20 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, at Arizona, 4:15 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, at Baltimore, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, Pittsburgh, 1:00 PM
Breakdown: The Cincinnati Bengals, 4-12 last season, couldn't handle a first-place schedule in 2010. But this season's slate is more manageable.

Cincinnati has the NFL's 27th-ranked strength of schedule, but it must overcome turmoil this offseason. The Bengals have had several changes on the coaching staff, a franchise quarterback who has threatened to retire and are rebuilding.

The Bengals are at least a couple years away from competing in the AFC North again, especially with quarterback Carson Palmer's future uncertain. But a relatively easy schedule compared to last season should help. The Bengals have a chance to get off to a good start in Week 1 against another rebuilding team in the Cleveland Browns. One of the Ohio teams will be 1-0 after the first week.

Complaint department: It's odd that Cincinnati will play five division games in the second half of the season. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing for the Bengals. The only AFC North matchup in the first eight weeks for Cincinnati will be at Cleveland on Sept. 11.

The what-if game: Bengals owner Mike Brown said he will not trade Palmer, and based on Brown's history, there is a good chance he won't budge. But let's imagine for a second that the Bengals do have a change of heart and decide to trade Palmer. There are several potential trade partners, including teams on the Bengals' 2011 schedule (San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans).

Bengals Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, at Cleveland, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, at Denver, 4:15 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, San Francisco, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, Buffalo, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, at Jacksonville, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, Indianapolis, 1:00 PM
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, at Seattle, 4:15 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, at Tennessee, 4:05 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, Pittsburgh, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, at Baltimore, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, Cleveland, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, at Pittsburgh, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, Houston, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, at St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, Arizona, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, Baltimore, 1:00 PM
Breakdown: As expected, the reigning AFC champions will get their share of the national spotlight with five prime-time games. The first national game will be on the road in Week 3 against the Indianapolis Colts, which should be a great matchup.

The Steelers caught a break in terms of strength of schedule. Pittsburgh finished first in the AFC North last year but has the 27th-ranked schedule this season. A major reason is the division will face the NFC West, which didn't have a team with a winning record in 2010. The Steelers also will play four games total against the Browns and Bengals, who were a combined 9-23 last season.

Super Bowl runners-up usually struggle the following season. But if Pittsburgh can get through the first month, the 2011 schedule sets up pretty favorably to make another push for the playoffs.

Complaint department: The Steelers begin with road games in three of the first four weeks. That includes a huge rivalry game at the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1 and at Indianapolis in Week 3.

Pittsburgh started 3-1 in the first month without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger last year, jump-starting a Super Bowl run. It will difficult to get off to a similar start this season. A late bye week also doesn't help. Pittsburgh will have its bye this season in Week 11.

Spacing is key: The Steelers' divisional games against the Ravens are always among the most intense and physical of the year. So the NFL did a good job of spacing out the meetings to allow both teams time to recover. The Ravens will host the Steelers in Week 1 and the rematch will be in Pittsburgh in Week 9 on Sunday night. That's two months in between meetings, which is good for both rivals.

Steelers Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, at Baltimore, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, Seattle, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, at Indianapolis, 8:20 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, at Houston, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, Jacksonville, 1:00 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, at Arizona, 4:05 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, New England, 4:15 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, Baltimore, 8:20 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, at Cincinnati, 1:00 PM
Week 11: BYE
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, at Kansas City, 8:20 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, Cincinnati, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Thursday, Dec. 8, Cleveland, 8:20 PM
Week 15: Monday, Dec. 19, at San Francisco, 8:30 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, at Cleveland, 1:00 PM
Breakdown: Baltimore, after a 12-4 season, caught the biggest break among AFC North teams with a 31st-ranked strength of schedule. Based on last year's records, the Ravens have the easiest schedule in the division and in the AFC.

The two games against the Steelers are always the highlight of the Ravens' schedule, and I love the idea of both teams setting the tone early and playing in Week 1. Coming off a divisional playoff loss in January, Baltimore will get its chance at revenge by hosting Pittsburgh on Sept. 11 at M&T Bank Stadium. The second meeting between the Steelers and Ravens will be in Pittsburgh on Nov. 6.

With key players such as linebacker Ray Lewis (35) and safety Ed Reed (32) getting up there in age, the window for Baltimore to make a title run is closing. With the exception of several tough games, the schedule is certainly set up for the Ravens to make the playoffs for the fourth straight year.

Complaint department: It's surprising that the Week 1 matchup between the Ravens and Steelers turned out to be a 1 p.m. start. This is the best rivalry in football and will involve two likely playoff contenders. At the very least, this could have been a highlighted by television networks for a later, 4 p.m. start.

Beware of QBs: Baltimore's stellar defense will face several top quarterbacks in 2011. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has always been a thorn in the Ravens' side and will travel to Baltimore on Dec. 11. Obviously, Baltimore will battle Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers twice within the division. It also has games against Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers (Dec. 18) and the up-and-coming Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams (Sept. 25). Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is 9-4 in his career against the Ravens, but Palmer wants out of Cincinnati.

Ravens Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, Pittsburgh, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, at Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, at St. Louis, 4:05 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, NY Jets, 8:20 PM
Week 5: BYE
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, Houston, 4:05 PM
Week 7: Monday, Oct. 24, at Jacksonville, 8:30 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, Arizona, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, at Pittsburgh, 8:20 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, at Seattle, 4:05 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, Cincinnati, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Thursday, Nov. 24, San Francisco, 8:20 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, at Cleveland, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, Indianapolis, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, at San Diego, 8:20 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, Cleveland, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, at Cincinnati, 1:00 PM

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