The 2016 NFL schedule is out, and the AFC North looks like it will be ultra competitive, as usual. The Bengals, Browns, Ravens and Steelers will all face similar competition throughout the season, and from the looks of how 2015 panned out, this might be one of the easier years for the AFC North. But anything can happen, as we all know.
Poor Browns. Cleveland only plays one primetime game in the entire 2016 season, and that game is a league-mandated Thursday Night Football matchup, in which the Browns will face the Baltimore Ravens in a rematch of a 2015 classic. If Hue Jackson is able to instill confidence in his team, however, Cleveland's schedule couldn't be better.
They'll open off the season in Philadelphia, against an Eagles team that is certainly beatable and is far from dominant at home. The Browns will then face the Ravens in their home opener. Baltimore will be a beatable team, especially early in the season, so Cleveland scored there too. But that's about it. The Browns will play on the road in five of their first seven contests, and they still don't even know who their starting quarterback is.
The middle of the season could somehow get even tougher, with matchups against the Patriots, Jets, Bengals, Steelers, Ravens and Cowboys before the Browns finally get to rest during their Week 13 bye. The end of the season, with matchups against four teams who don't have any questions at the quarterback position, doesn't make things any easier.
Good luck, Browns. That's all I have to say.
ESPN's Pat McManamon put the context of the Browns' schedule best:
Cleveland Browns: 1-15. Where will the wins come? Find them. There is no opponent on the schedule that says "Browns win." In fact, no other NFL nation reporter is picking their team to lose to the Browns. That puts 0-16 on the table. Yes, the draft is ahead, and the team has time to improve. But today, that's the view of the Browns. The only win comes through law of averages. They have to win one game, right?
The Ravens open up the season with an exciting matchup against former backup quarterback, Tyrod Taylor. That should make for battle that could end up being very fun to watch. They'll also face the Patriots in Week 14, and the game will be broadcasted on Monday Night Football. Baltimore always plays New England tough, so that could be a good one. The Ravens will also match up with the Steelers on Christmas Day in Week 16, which could make for an intriguing game. Only two games will be played on Christmas Sunday and the Steelers vs Ravens will be one of them with the Broncos vs Chiefs as the other. (The Bengals play on Saturday night in Week 16 on Christmas Eve.)
But the bigger story is how nice of a schedule the Ravens were handed. They'll only play one 2015 playoff team (Washington Redskins) in their first seven games, and their bye is nicely timed in Week 8. If the Ravens are going to re-establish themselves as contenders, something many analysts believe will happen, they've got the schedule set up perfectly.
Though they'll face the Steelers twice, the Bengals twice and the Patriots over the second half of the season, the Ravens will still match up with the Browns, Cowboys, Dolphins and Eagles late in the year. Two divisional games on the road to end the season will be a tough test for Baltimore, but aside from that, a team couldn't have asked for a better schedule.
And you thought the Ravens' schedule was easy. The Steelers got the matchup they wanted, and they'll face the Bengals, who will be short Vontaze Burfict, in Week 2. They also open the season on the road in Washington, where many Steeler fans claim the Redskins will not have homefield advantage, due to a legion of former Pittsburgh residents moving to the nation's capital.
The Steelers will face five playoff teams in 2016, and three of those matchups are home games. Fortunately for the Steelers, they scored home matchups with the Patriots and Chiefs. Last year, Pittsburgh faced both teams on the road, losing both games. Perhaps a home matchup with either team will help.
Still don't think the Steelers got lucky? Look closer at the teams they face post-bye. At Ravens, vs Cowboys, at Browns, at Colts, vs Giants, at Bills. Five winnable games in a row, that's some good fortune.
Finishing off the season, Pittsburgh gets a road matchup at Paul Brown Stadium, where, according to Pittsburgh fans, the Steelers play the Bengals better than they play at home. Finally, they end the season with home matchups facing the Ravens and Browns. Wow.
I'm just going to leave this here:
All the hype about the Steelers offense potentially being otherworldly... How many defenses on this schedule are scaring you?— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) April 15, 2016
If there's one thing to take away, it's that Steeler fans are going to have to find something other than the schedule to blame for any potential 2016 shortcomings.
The Bengals certainly don't have an unbearable schedule, but it isn't what the Ravens' and Steelers' schedules are. It might not be as bad as the Browns' schedule, but it definitely won't be easy.
First off, it's important to note that things could get difficult in primetime games against teams the Bengals have notoriously struggled against: the Dolphins, Steelers and Texans. The aspect of playing a home game against the Redskins in London, losing home field advantage, is frustrating, and facing the Patriots in New England is a daunting task. From Week 5 to Week 10, the Bengals will have only one game played at Paul Brown Stadium (that's six weeks with just one game at home)! That should be an uphill battle for a team that loves playing at home.
Despite the bad, there are still plenty of positives. The Bengals still get to play games against the Jets and Broncos early on in the season, which helps, considering the questions surrounding the quarterback position for both teams. The Bengals also have a winnable five-game stretch following the bye, with games at the Giants, vs the Bills, at the Ravens, vs the Eagles and at the Browns. And if it means anything, they have the league's fourth-easiest schedule, in terms of 2015 win percentage (yes, I know that means nothing).
It will be an uphill battle for the Bengals in 2016, but Cincinnati has consistently proven that a difficult schedule (i.e. 2013, 2014) won't stop the team from making the playoffs, at the very least. Hopefully that trend will continue in 2016 and then extend past the Wild Card round.