2018 NFL schedule rankings, AFC North: Browns have ugliest road in the division
After going 0-16 last season, the Browns have been rewarded with the AFC North's toughest schedule
For Browns coach Hue Jackson, there is one upside to going 0-16 last season: He can't technically do any worse this year.
Actually, I take that back, he could get fired, which is something that definitely seems possible heading into the upcoming season. The biggest reason Jackson and the Browns could struggle again this year is because Cleveland has the most difficult schedule in the AFC North. With the regular season still almost three months away, you might be wondering how we already know that the Browns have the most difficult schedule in the division, and that's because we went ahead and ranked all 32 schedules in the NFL.
The easiest way to rank each schedule is, but we don't like doing things the easy way around here, plus, that's not exactly the most efficient way to rate schedule difficulty. Instead, we've devised a formula to rank every team's schedule.
Basically, we went through each individual game on each team's schedule and ranked it based on difficulty, and let's just say, the Browns could be staring down another lost season. For one, they open up the year against the Steelers and Saints, which isn't ideal when you're trying to build team confidence after an 0-16 season.
To devise our formula, not only did we look at each individual game, but we also looked at Super Bowl odds. Since the oddsmakers in Las Vegas seem to know what they're doing, we incorporated their odds, which is a big reason why the Browns could be in trouble.
Not only do the Browns have to play six games against playoff teams from last season, but three of those games will come in a row when they play Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Atlanta starting in Week 8. The Browns have a bye in Week 9, which might be a good time for Jackson to start beefing up his résumé. No other team in the AFC North has to play three straight games against three playoff teams from 2017.
It's almost like the NFL wants the Browns to lose.
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One final thing we used to tabulate this formula is the first three games of the season. We weighted those three games slightly more than the other 13 games because they tend to be a good indication of how a team will play throughout the season. Basically, teams that go winless in their first three games almost never make the playoffs.
On the flip side of that, 3-0 usually means good things in the NFL: From 1990 to 2010, 75.9 percent of the teams that started 3-0 made the playoffs. Those odds drop to 54.9 percent for 2-1 teams and 23.3 percent for 1-2 teams.
You can look at last year's playoff field as proof of how important the first few games are: Of the 12 teams that made the postseason, only the Saints (1-2) didn't have a winning record through the first three weeks of the year. The other 11 teams either started the year 2-1 or 3-0.
This basically means that if your favorite team has a murderer's row in the first three weeks of the season, you should probably just give up on 2018 and start paying attention to 2019.
The reason we're not giving the final three games of the season more weight is because the final games don't always mean the same for everybody, especially when a team is resting its starters. The Saints went 0-3 in their final three games in 2009 and still won the Super Bowl. The Ravens went 1-2 in their final three in 2012 and also won the Super Bowl.
Alright, that's enough rambling, let's get to these rankings.
Wait, one more thing, here's how things are going to work with our schedule rankings: On Tuesdays and Thursdays over the next three weeks, we'll be going division by division to rank every schedule in the NFL. After starting with the AFC East and AFC South last week -- which you can check out byand -- we'll be hitting the AFC North (Tuesday) and the AFC West (Thursday) this week. Next week, you'll be getting the NFC East (June 26) and the NFC South (June 28).
Ranking the AFC North schedules
Schedule difficulty rating: 82.75
Easiest stretch: If the Bengals somehow manage to start 0-3 for the second-straight season, then Marvin Lewis might want to think about firing himself, because the Bengals' easiest stretch of the year will be coming during those first three weeks. For one, they get to open the season against a Colts team that still has no idea if Andrew Luck will be healthy enough to start. In Week 2, the Bengals will have a Thursday night home opener against a Ravens team that will be traveling on four days rest. Also, the Bengals are 5-1 in their past six home games against Baltimore. After that, the Bengals get a 10-day break before they head to Carolina in Week 3.
Roughest stretch: If the Bengals are in the playoff hunt heading into the final quarter of the season, they're going to be in for a rough ride. Starting in Week 14, the Bengals will play three of their final four games on the road (at L.A. Chargers, Oakland, at Cleveland, at Pittsburgh). Although that Cleveland game might look winnable, oddsmakers don't agree. That actually happens to be just one of two games that the Browns are favored to win during the 2018 season. And no, that's not a typo, the oddsmakers in Vegas currently have a team that went 0-16 last year favored to beat a Bengals team that is 7-0 in their past seven meetings against Cleveland.
Weird scheduling note: Someone in the NFL schedule office must have finally gotten the memo that the Bengals don't play very well in primetime, because the team was given only one late-night game this year, which will come on a Thursday in Week 2. The Bengals were completely left off the Monday night schedule for the first time in seven years, which actually might be a good thing for them, considering they're winless in their past four Monday night games.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
Schedule difficulty rating: 88.00
Easiest stretch: The Steelers have gone 11-1 against AFC North teams over the past two seasons, including 6-0 last year, so picking out their easiest stretch consisted of finding the spot on their schedule where they get to play a bunch of division games in a row. That spot starts in Week 6, when the Steelers play a stretch of three straight divisional games (at Cincinnati, Cleveland, at Baltimore).
Roughest stretch: The Steelers' ugliest stretch of the season starts in Week 10 and seems to go on forever. Although the other three teams in the AFC North only have to deal with a rough stretch that goes on for three games, the Steelers have to deal with one that goes on for seven games, which is nearly the entire back half of their schedule. Starting in Week 10, the Steelers have to deal with three of the top seven defenses in the NFL from last season in Carolina, Jacksonville and Denver, then they have to move on and play consecutive games against four potential MVP candidates in Philip Rivers, Derek Carr, Tom Brady and Drew Brees.
Also not helping things for the Steelers is that four of those seven games are on the road (at Jacksonville, at Denver, at Oakland, at New Orleans).
Weird scheduling note: It's not often that you see a team clinch a division title in November, but the Steelers could come close thanks to a schedule that's front-loaded with division games. Over their first eight games of the season, the Steelers will play a total of five division games. To put that in perspective, the Browns and Ravens will play only three in that same span and the Bengals will play only two.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Schedule difficulty rating: 90.75
Easiest stretch: If the Ravens can somehow survive the first 14 weeks of the season, their reward will be a closing stretch of three winnable games that will come against the Buccaneers, Chargers (in Los Angeles) and Browns. The most important thing here is probably the fact that the Tampa game is in Baltimore, and that's mainly because, if you're going to play the Bucs, you definitely want to play them in December. Over the past five seasons, Tampa is 1-10 on the road in December, including 1-4 with Jameis Winston. As for the Chargers, that could end up feeling like a de facto home game for the Ravens since there's almost always more opponent fans than home fans at Stubhub Center.
Here's what happened when Eagles fans took over Stubhub last season.
Roughest stretch: If you're looking for a spot on the schedule where the Ravens might finally give up on Joe Flacco, then you're going to want to circle Nov. 4 on your calendar, because that date will end one of the most brutal stretches that any NFL team will see all season. The ugliness starts in Week 4 when the Ravens have to go on the road for three-straight road games (at Steelers, at Browns, at Titans). The Ravens are one of just three teams that has to play three-straight games on the road this year. After their nightmare road trip, the Ravens then have to turn around and play the Saints, Panthers (away) and Steelers in consecutive weeks. Sure, Flacco probably won't be benched this season, but if you're a Ravens fan, you might want to buy a Lamar Jackson jersey by Week 9 just in case.
Weird scheduling note: The Ravens will be joining the Rams and Saints as the only teams in the NFL to play three-straight road games this year. To give you an idea of why that's a bad thing for those three teams, consider this: Between 1990 and 2017, there have been 138 instances where a team had to play three-straight road games and of those 138 road trips, the visiting team came away with a winning record (3-0 or 2-1) only 35.5 percent of the time (49 times)
That means that on the 64.5 percent of those road trips (or 89 times), the visiting team either went 1-2 or 0-3. Teams have actually gone 0-3 (25 times) on three-game road trips more than twice as often as they've gone 3-0 (10). None of this is good news for the Ravens, even if one of their three road games is against the Browns.
1. Cleveland Browns
Schedule difficulty rating: 95.00
Easiest stretch: With the Browns coming off an 0-16 record last season, we can probably all agree that there's no such thing as an "easy" stretch for them, but they do have a string of winnable games early in the season. If the Browns are going to end their 17-game losing streak that dates back to the 2016 season, a good time to do it would be somewhere between Week 3 and Week 6. Over that span, not only will the Browns get to play three of four games at home (Jets, at Raiders, Ravens, Chargers), but they're actually favored to win one of those games (Sorry Jets, but Vegas hates you). The Chargers game might also be worth circling on your calendar, but that's only because the only win in Hue Jackson's Browns' coaching career -- he's 1-31 overall -- came in a home game against the Chargers back in December 2016.
Roughest stretch: By the time the Browns get to their bye in Week 11, they're going to be begging for it, and that's because their roughest stretch of the year comes in the three weeks leading up to their bye. Starting in Week 8, the Browns have to play three straight games against teams that went to the playoffs last year (at Steelers, Chiefs, Falcons), and as if that's not bad enough, things actually won't be getting much easier after the bye, because the Browns have to play three road games in four weeks (at Cincinnati, at Houston, Carolina, at Denver).
Weird scheduling note: The Browns won't be leaving Ohio for the ENTIRE month of November. Also, the Browns' game against the Jets will mark just the second time since 2009 that Cleveland has hosted a primetime game against a non-divisional team. Oh, and if you're looking for the Browns to end their 17-game losing streak, don't look for it to happen in Week 1. The Browns have lost 13 straight regular season openers dating back to Week 1 of the 2005 season.
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