Putting the AFC North Schedules Under the Microscope
A comprehensive breakdown of remaining AFC North games, and predicted outcomes, courtesy of our friends at Football Perspective.
The Steelers beat the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night, narrowly moving into second place in the competitive AFC North in the process. But in reality, all Pittsburgh did was hold serve: the Bengals, Browns, and Ravens have all already defeated the Titans this year.
Each team in the AFC North plays six division games, four games against the AFC South, and four games against the NFC South. Then, based on how each team finished in 2013, single games are played against teams from the AFC East and West. Given that all four teams in the AFC North are within a half-game of each other, I thought it would be instructive to take a look a more in-depth look at how the schedules have unfolded to date.1
Let’s begin with games against the worst division in football, the NFC South:
Now, let’s rank how each team has fared:
Tie-1) Baltimore/Cleveland/Cincinnati: The Ravens and Browns have both “held serve” against the NFC South, and you might think Baltimore is in the driver’s seat by virtue of having already completed three-fourths of the lap. But the Ravens travel to New Orleans this week, which makes a 3-1 finish about as likely as a clean sweep. Meanwhile, the Browns have already knocked off the best team in the NFC South (at home). To be fair, the Browns do have to travel to both Carolina and Atlanta, but for now, this one is a push.
As for the Bengals, that tie against Carolina looms large, but in terms of expected wins, that’s equivalent to what we would project for the Ravens in New Orleans. Cincinnati should be able to knock off Tampa Bay even on the road, which would give the Bengals 3.5 wins against the NFC South, about what we would expect out of Baltimore and Cleveland.
4) The Steelers loss to Tampa Bay clearly puts Pittsburgh behind the rest of the division here. In fact, no other AFC North team has lost to an NFC South team, much less the worst team in the division. The Steelers still have to play the Saints and travel to Atlanta: a 2-2 record against this division is possible, and could be the reason Pittsburgh stays at home this January.
Of course, if the Steelers do win the division, there is a very clear reason why.
1) Pittsburgh has now swept the AFC South, while the rest of the AFC North is just 4-4 in these games. That gives the Steelers a huge edge, and compensates for the blunder that was the Tampa Bay game. The big win was over Indianapolis, as it’s easy to imagine the Colts sweeping the rest of the AFC North. That would both negate the Tampa Bay loss and potentially lead to a weird bit of trivia: Against the AFC North, Tampa Bay would have gone 1-3, and the Colts 3-1, with both outlier games coming in Pittsburgh.
Tie-2) Cincinnati/Baltimore: The Bengals lost to Indianapolis, but that doesn’t hurt Cincinnati much. Fortunately, the Bengals took care of business against the Titans and Jaguars, although a tough trip to Houston is on the week 12 schedule. And remember, the Texans knocked the Bengals out of the playoffs in both 2011 and 2012.
The Ravens also lost to the Colts, and but right now, the only thing separating the Ravens and Bengals here is a Cincinnati win over Jacksonville that I’m confident Baltimore can match. But Baltimore must also travel to Houston (in week 16), so both the Ravens and Bengals should expect to finish with about 2.5 AFC South wins.
4) Cleveland: The Browns loss to the Jaguars was one of the least-conforming games of the year, and about as weird as Pittsburgh’s win over the Colts. The Browns also lost to Houston last week, and still have have to play Indianapolis (that game, at least, is in Cleveland). The smart money is on the Browns finishing AFC South play with just 1 win; that’s damaging, and would kill Cleveland if not for….
The SOS Games
Each year, each NFL team plays two games against the two teams from the other divisions in the conference that finished in the same order. So for the 2014 AFC North, that means games matched up against the AFC East and AFC West. Which, as it turns out, is very, very good news for one team, and very, very bad news for another:
1) Cleveland. The Browns won the lottery, with the roulette wheeling landing on “Raiders-Bills.” Cleveland already beat Oakland, and while a trip to Buffalo is not going to be easy, the Browns at least have a chance to finish with a 2-0 record here. For now, we’ll project 1.5 wins.
2) Baltimore: The Ravens host the Chargers in week 13 and head to Miami in week 14, which is a pretty tough pair of games. But that’s still likely to lead to a 1-1 record, which is better than the next two teams could say.
3) Pittsburgh: The Steelers lost to the Jets. My goodness what is wrong with you! Still to come: a week 16 game against the Chiefs. Like just about every Steelers game, that should get marked down as a toss up, giving Pittsburgh 0.5 projected wins.
4) Cincinnati. By winning the division in 2013, the 2014 Bengals will have a legitimate grip if the team misses the postseason. The two “parity games” are against the Patriots and Broncos. Cincinnati has already lost to New England, and I’m comfortable suggesting that the Broncos will beat the Bengals in week 16 (spoiler: the game is on Monday Night Football).
Let’s take a look at where we stand entering intra-division play:
Baltimore is in the driver’s seat, by virtue of having no real blemishes. The Steelers have the NFC South, the Browns have the AFC South, and the Bengals have the SOS games. The Ravens look to finish 7-3 in interdivision games, which assumes going 3-2 against New Orleans, Miami, San Diego, Houston, and Jacksonville.
Pittsburgh is just behind Baltimore, by virtue of a sparkling 4-0 AFC South record. The Steelers are currently 5-2 in interdivision games, but the 6.5 wins projection here assumes a .500 record against the Saints, Falcons, and Chiefs. In all likelihood, Pittsburgh will go 1-2 or 2-1 in those games, which are now critically important. You can cancel the Bucs loss with the Colts win, but for now, Pittsburgh has nothing to cancel the Jets loss: a Chiefs win would do just that.
Cleveland is also projected at 6.5 wins. The Browns are currently 5-1 in these interdivision games, but this assumes 1.5 wins against the Falcons, Panthers, Colts, and Bills (or losing to the Colts and splitting the other three). The Browns’ big issue, of course, is a poor AFC South record, courtesy of losses to both the Jaguars and Texans (and a very, very near-loss against the Titans).
Cincinnati is projected with the fewest inter-division wins, and the biggest reason for that is the two strength of schedule games. Right now, the Broncos game is going down as 0 wins, so an upset there would be the Bengals back on even footing. But Cincinnati is currently 4-2-1 in interdivision games, so the 6 wins mark assumes losing to the Broncos, beating the Bucs, and a 50% chance of a win against the Texans. Still open: the question of what that tie against the Panthers actually will mean.
The big news here is that the Bengals swept the Ravens, which negates much of our earlier analysis. After all, at the conclusion of our analysis of the interdivision games, Baltimore was in first place and Cincinnati was in last. Right now, the Bengals sweep of Baltimore is what’s keeping Cincinnati in the running. Of course, that tie against the Panthers “hurts” here, in that it essentially is no more valuable than a loss, at least with respect to Baltimore. If Cincinnati finishes with the same number of wins as Baltimore, the Bengals would win the tiebreaker had they tied Carolina (by virtue of a half-game lead in the standings) or lost to Carolina (by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker).
So which teams are in the best position here?
1) Cincinnati is 2-1 (+1) in the division, although the Bengals did lose a home game to Cleveland. That means the Bengals have one home game and two road games remaining. Two games against Pittsburgh and a trip to Cleveland sounds like 1.5 expected wins to me. That brings the Bengals up to 9.5 wins.
2) Pittsburgh is 2-2 (+0), with both losses coming on the road and both wins coming at home. The Steelers have yet to play the Bengals, but given Cincinnati’s extreme home/road splits generally, another 1-1 mark is a safe bet. That also brings the Steelers to 9.5 wins. Of course, unlike the Bengals, Pittsburgh won’t actually finish with 9.5 wins, which means those toss-up games will determine the division, and a tiebreaker won’t be necessary here.
3) Cleveland is 2-2 (+0), after splitting with Pittsburgh, winning in Cincinnati, and losing at home to Baltimore. A road trip to Baltimore is not good, and a home game against the Bengals is no sure thing, either. It’s a close call deciding between 0.5 or 1.0 expected wins, but I do think the Ravens are a much better team. So I’ll project 2.5 division wins for Cleveland, which puts them at 9.0 wins.
4) Baltimore is 2-3 (-1) against the AFC North, with only a home game against the Browns remaining. The Ravens would lose tiebreakers to Cleveland and likely Pittsburgh if Baltimore drops that game, but I’m projecting the Ravens to handle business at home. A 3-3 division record puts the Ravens at 10 wins.
The Ravens are the favorite to get to 10 wins and take home the division crown. That is, of course, unless Baltimore loses at home to Cleveland, which would make the Ravens’ division record the team’s Achilles’ heel. Right now, each of the other three teams has fared poorly (or projects to fare poorly) in one slate of games, but Baltimore is projected to win 3.5 games against the NFC South, 2.5 against the AFC South, split its SOS games, and split in the division. With no warts, the Ravens are the favorites. To do that, Baltimore must go 4-2 against New Orleans, Miami, San Diego, Houston, Jacksonville, and Cleveland. Even one additional loss — particularly if it is against the Browns — could cost the Ravens a playoff spot. That Browns game is in week 17, by the way.
Can the 7-4 Steelers get to 10 wins? Pittsburgh has two games left against the Bengals, a trip to Atlanta, and home games against the Saints and Chiefs. I see 2-3 and 3-2 as pretty even possibilities here, which is why the Ravens are the frontrunners to take home the division. The Steelers are likely to own the tiebreaker over the Ravens if the two squads end up tied,2 so this race is about as close as it gets.
Cincinnati needs to get to 10 wins, as odds are, one of the other three AFC North teams gets there. As a result, that Panthers tie may wind up being no better than a loss. To get to 10-5-1, the Bengals need to go 4-2 in the following games: vs. DEN, @ PIT, @ HOU, @ CLE, PIT, @ TAM. Let’s say the Broncos/Bucs games cancel each other out, and the two Steelers games result in a split. That means Cincinnati needs to win at Houston and at Cleveland. The good news? If the Bengals can pull that off, Cincinnati at 10-5-1 is very likely to win the division.
The good news for Cleveland is Josh Gordon is coming back. The bad news is everything else. The Browns are 6-4, but the remaining schedule is, in order, @ATL, @BUF, IND, CIN, @CAR, and @BAL. A 3-3 split would probably be slightly optimistic, but a 9-7 record is unlikely to cut it, as I doubt that the Bengals, Steelers, and Ravens all lose three more games (and I haven’t done the tiebreaker math in the event that happens, anyway). Cleveland’s in trouble because the Browns still have to play the Colts and travel to Baltimore. The rest of the AFC North already lost to Indianapolis3, while the Bengals and Steelers already made their trip to Baltimore. So while Cleveland has only 4 losses, the schedule is backloaded. The Browns are lucky to even be in the race, frankly, as games against Oakland and Buffalo are what’s keeping Cleveland in the mix. When we look back on the season, a 1-3 record against the AFC South — that was very nearly 0-4 — will be what torpedoes an otherwise strong season for Cleveland.
The other bad news for the Browns is they have no chance of winning a tiebreaker against the Steelers unless the Bengals sweep Pittsburgh or the Browns beat both Cleveland and Baltimore down the stretch. No tiebreaker scenario will emerge with Cincinnati, but there’s a decent chance the Browns would lose a tiebreaker to the Ravens, too. While the Oakland/Buffalo games will help out Cleveland, since the third tiebreaker after head-to-head and division record is record against common opponents, a 2-0 record that comes back to bite the Browns.