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Handicapping the AFC North race

Per usual, the AFC North should be a closely contested division in 2016. The Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals are essentially evenly matched teams. Their respective schedules could decide which teams earn a playoff bid, home-field advantage in the playoffs and who becomes the division champions.

Based strictly off opponents win-loss records last season, CBS Sports ranks the Ravens as having the most difficult schedule of the divisional contenders. The Ravens slot in as the 19th most difficult in the NFL, with the Steelers sitting at 25th hardest and the Bengals at 27th. However, using only the 2015 results do not paint a complete picture. Many scheduling quirks, including home vs. away games, rest before each matchup and travel play a large part in determining the true level of schedule difficulty.

Through this lens, the Bengals have the toughest schedule in the division. The Bengals face two teams after their bye weeks. Cincinnati will also lose a home game when the team travels to play in London before its week 9 bye. The Bengals most arduous stretch should be in October, with back-to-back road contest in Dallas and New England.

The Steelers schedule is mostly fair from a situational standpoint. Pittsburgh’s week 8 bye is ideally sandwiched between matchups against the Patriots and Ravens. If the Steelers can get past a Thursday night road game against Indianapolis in week 12, the Steelers will be primed for a strong December.

Despite the Ravens not receiving the full benefit of the third place schedule, since the Raiders and Jaguars are improving teams, the schedule is still manageable. Travel will be greatly reduced from last season, with only a single road game west of the eastern time zone. Baltimore will face New England, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, its three biggest rivals, all on the road in a challenging final quarter of the season.

A relatively soft early schedule could help the Ravens gain confidence following 2015’s debacle, while its divisional competition deals with important player suspensions early on. The machinations of the schedule are not favorable to the Bengals and could easily cost the Bengals a win or two. Of course, scheduling only means so much, games are won on the field.

2016 will be another highly competitive season in the AFC North.