Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sizing up the remaining AFC North schedules

By Pat McManamon
November 25, 2014

The Steelers host the Saints this Sunday afternoon. (Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports)

Every team in the AFC North is at least three games over .500, and every team has playoff hopes. 

The situation will sort itself out the next five games, but studying the schedules of the Browns, Bengals, Ravens and Steelers shows that Baltimore has a clear advantage, and the toughest roads belong to the Bengals and Browns. 

Not all agree it's that tough for the Bengals, though. The website lists the Ravens with the best chance of making the playoffs, though the Bengals are not far behind. Numberfire lists the Ravens with a 59-percent chance, the Bengals at 56 percent, the Steelers at 50 percent and the Browns at just 23 percent. 

None of the four has an easy finish, though at this point of the season nothing is easy. 

Here’s a look: 

The Baltimore Ravens play San Diego, at Miami, Jacksonville, at Houston and finish at home against Cleveland. Those teams are a combined 26-29 (.472). ... Three games are at home, three against winning teams. ... Baltimore is the only North team whose remaining opponents are below .500. ... After winning on the road impressively in New Orleans, the Ravens have to feel they control their fate if they keep winning. ... The flip side: The opponent won-lost is skewed by one-win Jacksonville. But Baltimore plays just two teams that have won at least seven games, fewest of the North teams, and it has three of their last five at home. 

The Cincinnati Bengals play at Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, at Denver and end against Pittsburgh. ... Yes, it’s as tough as it sounds. ... The combined record of those teams: 31-24 (.564). ... Three of five are at home, four of five against winning teams. ... How about that final four for a gantlet? Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver and Pittsburgh again. ... Splitting those four game might mean the Bengals miss the playoffs. ... Three are within the division, and Denver is among the AFC’s best. ... This finish is the most difficult in the division. 

The Cleveland Browns play at Buffalo, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, at Carolina and at Baltimore. ... That combined record is 30-24-1. ... The Browns also play four winning teams, with three of the final five on the road. ... That the Browns are even in the discussion is good news for Cleveland, but now the Browns would like to finish the task they’ve started. ...It’s not easy, especially since the Colts are one of the non-division games. That’s an exceptionally tough late draw. ... The Browns would love to be alive for the season finale in Baltimore, but to do so they have to take care of business in three of the next four games. Buffalo is close to a must win. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers play New Orleans, at Cincinnati, at Atlanta and finish at home against Kansas City and Cincinnati. ... The combined record: 29-24-2. ... Three are at home, three against winning teams. ... Finishing at home the final two weeks helps, but Pittsburgh’s hopes might come down to how they fare against Cincinnati. ... Do the Bengals split, or does one team escape with two wins? If the Steelers can sweep, that might propel them. ... The negative about the final two home games: They figure to be against two teams fighting for their playoff lives as well.

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