Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
The annual release of the NFL schedule has become a holiday of sorts for football enthusiasts. On Tuesday, the league will release its slate of games for the 2009 season.
With that in mind, here are five wishes for the AFC North that I would like to see when the schedule is released:
1. Cleveland opens on the road
The NFL has given the Cleveland Browns an unbelievable 10 straight home openers since the team returned to the league in 1999, which is the longest such streak in the NFL. Three years ago, I questioned the league office about this and was told it was strictly a "coincidence.” It hasn't helped the Browns all that much, because they are 1-9 in those games. But if the NFL grants Cleveland a home opener for the 11th straight season, I'm taking this out of the "coincidence” category and throwing it into the "conspiracy" bin.
2. Cincinnati should be Cleveland's Week 1 opponent
Let's settle this right off the bat: Who has sleeper potential in the AFC North and who is a pretender? Both teams are in good spots to improve on its four-win seasons from 2008. The Browns and Bengals have much easier schedules and should have better luck with injuries. Last year the Baltimore Ravens beat the Bengals in the season opener and it propelled the Ravens to a great season. Who knows what can happen by pitting the Browns and Bengals in the 2009 opener in The Jungle?
3. Pittsburgh at Baltimore in prime time
As much as the Ravens took flak for not wanting to face the Steelers in Heinz Field at night to open the season, they did have a point that the schedule between these two teams wasn't balanced. This is the year Pittsburgh should definitely face Baltimore in a prime time match up at M&T Bank Stadium. After last season's classic trilogy, the NFL is finally catching on to this rivalry. The expectation is that both teams will be playoff contenders again next year, so at least one of its games deserve the national spotlight.
4. Jay Cutler vs. Ravens or Steelers early
Is new Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler the real deal? Will the biggest trade of the offseason pan out? Put Cutler to the test early against the Steelers' or Ravens' defense early and let's find out. The Bears play every team in the AFC North this season. So Cutler will have to face two of the NFL's stingiest defenses at some point. This doesn't necessarily have to be a season opener. But I want to see what Cutler is made of against one of these two units within the first month of the regular season.
5. No prime time games for Cleveland
Remember a year ago? The Browns were the darlings of the NFL following a 10-win season in 2007 and were awarded a whopping five prime time games. Well, that turned out to be an absolute disaster last year as Cleveland flopped its way to a 4-12 season that had television execs cringing. The Browns didn't earn the national spotlight this time around. Perhaps fewer prime time games next year will help them improve.