Strength of Schedule Suggests AFC North Will Be Competitive in 2012

CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 11: A.J. Green #18 of the Cincinnati Bengals catches a pass while defended by Johnathan Joseph #26 of the Houston Texans during the NFL game at Paul Brown Stadium on December 11, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

ESPN's John Clayton wrote an intriguing story recently about the strength of schedules of teams across the NFL.

Most notably (to me, anyway) was the difference between the 12-4 division champion Ravens and the 12-4 also-ran Steelers. Batimore's SoS is .523, the fourth-strongest in the NFL. It was .477 at the end of last year. Pittsburgh had .492 last season and it climbs slightly, to .500.

That difference is encapsulated between the difference in Houston and New England (for Baltimore) and Tennessee and the Jets (for Pittsburgh). Or, perhaps the real story is really in the hard-charging Bengals, who look to add two first-round picks in the upcoming draft, and have Miami and Jacksonville on their inter-conference schedule.

Strength of schedule is based on the collective win/loss record of a team's opponents from the previous year, and could stand to be very different when viewed nine months from now. However, few could be legitimately excited about playing Houston instead of Jacksonville, and the Patriots over Miami.

What's been lost this off-season, in all the hoopla over shanked kicks (that would have merely tied a game, not won it) and blown coverage in Denver was the fact Cincinnati is clearly the team with the most room to grow, between the three competitors in the AFC North. While they may not have played their best against Houston in a 31-10 drubbing in the playoffs, they played Baltimore very tough in two games last year, and competed well in the first of two losses to Pittsburgh. It seems more likely Cincinnati will improve on an out-of-nowhere 9-7 playoff season than an often-inconsistent Ravens offense (nine punts to 11 first downs against the Texans in the playoffs) or a shaken-up Steelers roster (new offensive coordinator, new starters on both sides of the ball).

It's far too early to speculate on a team's likelihood for success in the season, let alone predicting the success of the 13 opponents on your schedule. Cincinnati is a prime example of that. No one gave them a chance of any success this time last year. The Carson Palmer Soap Opera appeared to favor him, and not the team (thanks to Oakland, that couldn't have been proven more wrong). The Bengals' defense re-invented itself as one of the most formidable and unpredictable units in the league. They ran out of steam down the stretch last year, as younger teams often do. Playing the battle-tested Steelers and Ravens can do that to an inexperienced group.

Rebounding won't be a challenge for them, considering their younger players are only more experienced now, and their veterans obviously played well enough to get them to the post-season.

Plus, all three teams should worry about Cleveland, who's putting together a nice off-season of its own. With a high draft pick, the Browns could improve... Nevermind, sorry, I can't do it with a straight face.

Cincinnati will be a tough out this year, that's for sure.

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