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Schedule Analysis: AFC North

With the top three teams in the AFC North tied at three losses each, the division will be decided by the teams' performance in their remaining games. This post looks at the schedules for the Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals and presents three ways for the Steelers to win the division.

Here are the remaining games for each team, listed in order of opponents record:

Steelers: at SF (8-1), vs CIN (6-3), at KC (4-5), at CLE (3-6), vs CLE (3-6), vs STL (2-7), BYE

Ravens: vs SF (8-1), at CIN (6-3), vs CIN (6-3), at SD (4-5), at CLE (3-6), vs CLE (3-6), vs IND (0-10)

Bengals: at PIT (7-3), vs TEX (7-3), at BAL (6-3), vs BAL (6-3), vs CLE (3-6), vs ARI (3-6), at STL (2-7)

The following tables presents this in a more visual fashion, pairing similar opponents on the same rows:

Steelers Ravens Bengals
at SF (8-1) vs SF (8-1) at PIT (7-3)
vs TEX (7-3)
at CIN (6-3) at BAL (6-3)
vs CIN (6-3) vs CIN (6-3) vs BAL (6-3)
at KC (4-5) at SD (4-5)
at CLE (3-6) at CLE (3-6) vs ARZ (3-6)
vs CLE (3-6) vs CLE (3-6) vs CLE (3-6)
vs STL (2-7) vs IND (0-10) at STL (2-7)

As we can see, the Steelers' remaining schedule is bottom heavy, with only two teams that have winning records. The Ravens, in contrast, face three such teams. The Bengals' schedule is top heavy, with four games against winning teams. The Ravens and Bengals, in fact, play each other twice, so if either team wins both games, the other will be essentially eliminated from the division lead, and if they split, both will fall behind the Steelers.

As we know, the Ravens hold a tiebreaker over the Steelers on the basis of winning both games head-to-head. To win the division, the Steelers need to gain one game on the Ravens. Based on the table above, here are three ways this can happen:

1) Steelers beat the 49ers while the Ravens lose to the 49ers. This is the most difficult method, because the schedule in this case favors the Ravens: they play the 49ers in Baltimore, while the Steelers must travel to San Francisco. The one bit of good news is that the Steelers-49ers game comes with just three weeks remaining in the season; by that time, the 49ers will have mathematically clinched the NFC West title (they currently have a five-game lead with seven games to go) and may have essentially clinched the second seed in the NFC, behind the Packers. Therefore, they could have a letdown. The Ravens play the 49ers a few weeks earlier in a game that will pit brothers Jim and John Harbaugh against each other, so there will be no letdown.

2) Steelers beat the Bengals while the Ravens lose to the Bengals. This is a more likely scenario. The Ravens have two games against the Bengals, starting this Sunday in Baltimore and later a second game in Cincinnati. Having already won in Cincinnati, the Steelers merely have to beat the Bengals in Pittsburgh. If they do, and the Ravens lose just one of the two games against the Bengals, the Steelers will be in first place in the division.

3) Steelers beat all teams with losing records while the Ravens are upset at least once. Both teams play four games against teams that currently have losing records, including home-and-away series against the Browns and away games at mediocre AFC West teams. The Colts suck slightly more than the Rams, giving the Ravens a slight edge. But consider this statistic. The Steelers' record against teams that currently have a losing record is 4-0; the Ravens record is 2-2, including upset losses to the Jaguars and Seahawks. If this form holds, the Ravens are in for two more upset losses this season.

All of these scenarios assume the Steelers win their remaining games. Even if the Steelers lose to, say, the 49ers, they could still win the division if the Ravens lose to the 49ers and also lose to the Bengals or have an upset loss. In summary, the Steelers still need help to win the AFC North title from the Ravens, but if they take care of their own business, that help is likely to come.

BTW, for those who are concerned that the Bengals will sweep the Ravens and challenge the Steelers for the dvision lead, the scenario for winning the division against the Bengals is much simpler:

1) Steelers beat the Bengals in Pittsburgh. The Steelers beat the Bengals by a touchdown in Cincinnati and merely need to repeat this performance playing at home. If they do, the Steelers have an iron-clad tiebreaker over the Bengals and will be one game ahead. At that point, the Steelers could lose another game during the rest of the season and still win the division on the tiebreaker.

A closing tidbit for Bengals fans. Bengals' record versus teams that currently have winning records: 2-2. Bengals' games remaining against teams with winning records: 4.

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