Over the past few years, the AFC North has proven why the NFL has the best Playoff system in North American Pro Sports. In 2010, both Pittsburgh and Baltimore finished 12-4 and the Steelers won the division based on divisional record. The result: Pittsburgh hosted the Ravens in the AFC Divisional Playoff round and won by a touchdown on its way to a Super Bowl XLV matchup against Green Bay.
In 2011, both teams finished 12-4 again, only the Ravens beat the Steelers in both of their regular season contests. The result: Baltimore earned a First Round bye that eventually helped it reach Foxboro for the AFC Championship Game. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, as a Wild Card, was forced to visit Denver (8-8) in the First Round, and lost to the Broncos in OT.
ErnBlog’s 2012 AFC North:
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) (Division Champions):
Once again, the divisional games will make all the difference in the AFC North. ErnBlog has the Steelers going 4-2 in the division (losing on the road to Baltimore and Cincinnati). In 2011, the Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals all qualified for the playoffs. With ErnBlog already selecting the Jets for a Wild Card spot from the AFC East, that only leaves one more Wild Card available for the AFC North.
Although ErnBlog gives the edge at both QB and running back to the Ravens, the Steelers defense appears to be younger and quicker than Baltimore’s in 2012. When December arrives, defense will rise to the pinnacle of importance in this division.
So here’s the big question: When are the Steelers-Ravens games in 2012?
Both games fall within a three-week fortnight, starting in late November:
Nov. 18: at Pittsburgh (NBC Sunday Night Football)
Dec. 2: at Baltimore
The most favorable segment of the Steelers’ schedule is the last quarter, starting right after the second Ravens game:
Dec 9: vs. San Diego
Dec. 16: at Dallas
Dec. 23: vs. Cleveland
Dec. 30: vs. Cincinnati
Three of those final four games are within the chilly, windy comfort of Heinz Field. ErnBlog projects that the Steelers will emerge victorious in all four of those final games.
2. Baltimore Ravens (10-6) (Wild Card Playoffs):
The Baltimore Ravens got the closest to a Super Bowl in 2011 than at any point since their intial 2000 trip to Tampa. Lee Evans dropped a fifteen-yard pass in the end zone in the closing moments of the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Then, kicker Matt Stover missed a 30-something-yard field goal attempt that would have sent the classic battle with New England into OT. The one unflappable cog in Baltimore’s 2011 postseason run was QB Joe Flacco.
Flacco, entering his fifth year out of Delaware, has now been to playoffs in each of his four seasons and has visited the AFC Championship Game twice. Is this the year for Flacco and Baltimore to win the AFC Title and head to New Orleans for the Super Bowl? Well, for that answer, you’ll have to tune in to ErnBlog’s NFL Playoffs Simulation (coming sometime between 8/30 and 9/5). Stay tuned!
The Raven’s “reward” for winning that 2011 AFC North Title is a schedule more difficult than Pittsburgh’s in 2012. The Ravens pull right out of the gate against Cincinnati on ESPN Monday Night Football. Then, two weeks later, they host New England on NBC Sunday Night Football. The Steelers don’t have to play the Patriots in 2012. On October 7, Baltimore visits Kansas City, one of the best young teams in the AFC West. Then on October 21, the Ravens go to Houston for a Playoff Rematch with the Texans. The Steelers don’t have to play Houston in 2012.
On Thanksgiving Weekend, Baltimore visits San Diego while Pittsburgh gets to host the Chargers in December. Finally, the Ravens final two home games in Weeks 15-16 are against the Defending World Champion Giants and then versus Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Ouch. Early indications are that if the Ravens are going to make a February trip to New Orleans, they may have to earn that goal from a Wild Card spot.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (7-9):
Last year the Bengals went 9-7 and made the Playoffs. This year, the schedule is harder and they will go 7-9. Are the Bengals better this year? Probably. QB Andy Dalton from Texas Christian is back for his second season. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a free agent running back from New England, should help to reduce the pressure on the young QB. Marvin Lewis’s defense can rush the passer. And the Cincinnati receiving corps is led by young talent AJ Green. But they play Pittsburgh and Baltimore twice each, the entire NFC East, and the entire much-improved AFC West. Sorry Cincinnati!
4. Cleveland Browns (2-14):
Very little about the Cleveland Browns excites me. Coach Pat Shurmur, QB Brandon Weeden (who’s a baseball player), or the rest of the more familiar cast. Alabama rookie running back Trent Richardson appears to be the bright spot in Cleveland. Although, look out for tight end Dan Gronkowski – Yeah the Gronk’s brother!