2019 NFL schedule rankings, AFC North: Browns have easiest path to division title, Steelers face rough ride

The Browns hype train has been moving at nearly full speed this entire offseason, and there's a good chance it's not going to slow down anytime soon. 

Sure, the Browns haven't won a division title since 1989, but that hasn't slowed the hype train, and you know what, if they're going to end that drought, this seems like the year to do it. The reason for that is because out of all the teams in the AFC North, the Browns have the easiest path to a division title, at least according to our NFL schedule ratings.  

According to our formula, not only do the Browns have the easiest schedule in the AFC North this season, but they also have the fourth-easiest schedule in the entire NFL. With the regular season still three months away, you might be wondering how we already know that the Browns have the fourth-easiest schedule, and that's because we went ahead and ranked all 32 schedules. 

The easiest way to rank each schedule in the NFL is to use strength of schedule, but the problem with going that route is that it's not exactly the most efficient way to rate schedule difficulty, which is why we went ahead and devised a formula. 

So how does this formula work? Glad you asked. 

First, we looked at Super Bowl odds from the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. Since the oddsmakers in Vegas seem to know what they're doing, we incorporated their odds into our formula, which benefitted the Browns more than any other team in the AFC North. 

Another part of the formula is the first three games of the season. Those are going to be weighted slightly more than the other 13 games because they tend to be a good indication of how a team will play throughout the year. Basically, teams that go winless in their first three games almost never make the playoffs. 

Since 1990, only four teams have started 0-3 and made the postseason (1992 Chargers,1995 Lions, 1998 Bills, 2018 Texans). Although the Texans pulled off the feat last year, there's a reason it's only happened four times in 29 seasons, it's nearly impossible to pull off. 

Although an 0-3 start almost always means you'll miss the postseason, 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. 

This basically means that if your favorite team has a murderer's row in the first three weeks of the season, your playoff chances will take a big hit, which could end up working against the Steelers this year since they have the most difficult opening three games of any team in the AFC North, according to our formula. 

Speaking of the first three games, it's probably worth nothing that starting off the year with a winning record through the first three weeks has almost become a prerequisite for getting into a conference title game. Over the past four seasons, 15 of the 16 teams that took part in the AFC and NFC title games started the season at 2-1 or better. That doesn't necessarily mean your favorite team will make it if they start 2-1, it just means they almost certainly won't make it if they start 1-2 or 0-3. (Since 2015, the one team that bucked this trend was the 2018 Patriots, but the Patriots have bucked a lot of trends over the year and it's unlikely that another team would be able to emulate them). 

On the other end of the schedule, the reason the final three games of the season aren't being given 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.  

Finally, each individual game on each team's schedule is also being ranked based on difficulty. For instance, the Bengals have to travel to Seattle to open the season. On the other hand, the Browns get to play the Seahawks in Cleveland. 

From a strength of schedule standpoint, the game is the same: Both teams are playing the Seahawks. However, the Bengals game against Seattle is viewed as more difficult in our formula, because they have to go on the road to face a Seahawks team that has never lost a home opener under Pete Carroll (9-0). On the other hand, the Browns will get to host a Seahawks team that has been somewhat beatable on the road over the past few seasons (Seattle is 12-11-1 away from home since 2016). Those individual nuances are factored into the schedule ratings. 

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 by clicking here and here -- 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 25) and the NFC South (June 27). We'll then close things out during the first week of July with the NFC North (July 2) and NFC West (July 4). 

Ranking the AFC North schedules

4. Cleveland Browns

Schedule difficulty rating: 88.00
Overall NFL schedule difficulty ranking: 29th

Easiest stretch: The Browns get to play the Bengals twice over the final four weeks of the season, which is good news for a Cleveland team that absolutely dominated Cincinnati last year. The Browns' easiest stretch will start in Week 14 with a home game against the Bengals. After that, Cleveland will face the Cardinals and Ravens before traveling to Cincinnati to close the season. The best part of the Browns playing the Bengals twice in four weeks is that it means everyone's December will likely be filled with never-ending highlights of Baker Mayfield staring down Hue Jackson. 

If the Bengals care about entertainment, they'll hire Hue Jackson to stand on the sideline just for those two games. 

Roughest stretch: The Browns hype train could be headed off a cliff before we even get halfway through the 2019 season, and that's because Cleveland's roughest stretch will happen between Weeks 3 and 8. Although the Browns will open the season with two winnable games (Titans, at Jets), things could turn into a total disaster after that. Over a period of six weeks, the Browns will have to play four teams that made the playoffs last season, including both Super Bowl teams. Here's what that stretch looks like: Rams (Week 3), at Ravens (Week 4), at 49ers (Week 5), Seahawks (Week 6), BYE (Week 7), at Patriots (Week 8). 

The 49ers game will be played on a Monday night, which means Cleveland will have to fly home across the country on a short week to host the Seahawks. The Rams game will also follow a road Monday night game. If the Browns lose both post-Monday games, fans might start to long for the times when their team was never scheduled in primetime. 

Weird scheduling note: Browns fans are actually going to have something to watch on Mondays this year and that's because Browns are going to be playing in as many Monday night games in 2019 (2) as they played in the past 10 years combined. 

3. Cincinnati Bengals

Schedule difficulty rating: 95.75
Overall NFL schedule difficulty ranking: 25th

Easiest stretch: When you're the Bengals, there aren't really any "easy" stretches on your schedule, but Cincinnati does have three very winnable games starting in October. The stretch starts in Week 5, when they get to host a Cardinals team that finished with the NFL's worst record last season. If Kyler Murray hasn't figured out how to read an NFL defense yet, this could be an easy win. Also working in the Bengals' favor is the fact that Arizona has been horrible in the Eastern Time Zone over the past three years. Since 2016, the Cards are just 1-8 when playing in eastern time. In Week 6, the Bengals get the Ravens, which doesn't seem like an easy came until you realize that Cincy has won 8 of its past 11 against Baltimore. The stretch then ends in Week 7 with a home game against Jacksonville. 

The Bengals will also catch a small break in Week 8, and that's because they'll get to play the Rams at a neutral site (London), instead of playing on the road in Los Angeles, but we're not technically including that game in the "easiest stretch" category. 

Roughest stretch: The Bengals' season will open with three of their first four games on the road, which isn't good news for a team that's gone just 7-17 away from home over the past three seasons. The worse part for the Bengals is that they'll be opening against a Seahawks team that hasn't lost a home opener since 2008. After that, the Bengals will get to play their home opener against the 49ers before hitting the road again. In Week 3, the Bills will be playing their home opener in a game that will come against the Bengals. One week later, the Bengals have to travel to Pittsburgh for a Monday night game. 

If you're scoring at home, that's two home openers where the Bengals will be on the visiting end and a primetime road game. If you've ever seen the Bengals play in primetime, then you know why that's bad. 

Things could get ugly for the Bengals early on in the season. Hopefully, the Bengals will put more effort into their "roughest stretch" than they did into their schedule release video.

Some teams went all out with their schedule reveal -- the Giants even brought in Tracy Morgan -- but not the Bengals. They gave their mascot a scooter and had him aimlessly ride around the city. 

Weird scheduling note: The Bengals are one of just three teams in the NFL this year, along with the Chiefs and Titans, that have to open with three of their first four games on the road. 

2. Baltimore Ravens

Schedule difficulty rating: 100.50
Overall NFL schedule difficulty ranking: 15th

Easiest stretch: If the Ravens still haven't figured out how to incorporate the forward pass into their offense by the time the 2019 season starts, that might not matter, because they should be able to run over their first two opponents. As a matter of fact, Lamar Jackson might not have to throw a single pass during the team's first two weeks and that's because the Ravens will be opening the year against the NFL's two worst rushing defenses from last season: At Dolphins (Week 1), Cardinals (Week 2). The Cardinals ranked dead last in yards allowed against the run in 2018 while the Dolphins ranked 31st overall. Unfortunately for the Ravens, they're probably going to have to throw at least one pass in Week 3, and that's because they'll be facing the Chiefs.  

Roughest stretch: The Ravens better take advantage of their easiest stretch, because after that, things could get ugly. Starting in Week 3, the Ravens have a brutal stretch of nine games where they might only be favored to win twice. Here's what the stretch looks like: At Chiefs (Week 3), Browns (Week 4), at Steelers (Week 5), Bengals (Week 6), at Seahawks (Week 7), BYE (Week 8), Patriots (Week 9), at Bengals (Week 10), Texans (Week 11), at Rams (Week 12). In that stretch, the Ravens will play both Super Bowl teams from last year and four teams that won their division last season. The Bengals are the closest thing to a breather that the Ravens will get, but that might not even be a breather, and that's because the Ravens are just 3-7 against Cincinnati over their past 10 games. 

Weird scheduling note: Baltimore's schedule definitely came with one big quirk this year: The Ravens won't get to play consecutive home games or away games all season, marking just the fourth time this has happened to a team since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978 (The 1985 Falcons, 1991 Buccaneers and 2012 Falcons were the only other teams that had to deal with this). 

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

Schedule difficulty rating: 100.75
Overall NFL schedule difficulty ranking: T-13th

Easiest stretch: If the Steelers are still in the AFC North race heading into the final month of the season, they probably won't need a Christmas miracle to clinch the division, and that's because their "easiest stretch" comes late in December. Starting in Week 14, the Steelers will hit a three game stretch that looks like this: At Cardinals, Bills, at Jets. The Steelers are a team that's 20-5 over their past 25 December games, so It wouldn't be too surprising to see them sweep that stretch. 

Roughest stretch: If you're wondering how the Steelers ended up with the most difficult schedule in the AFC North, a big part of that is because there's a realistic chance they could start the season 0-3. Not only do the Steelers open up against a quarterback (Tom Brady) who they've never beaten in New England, but they follow that up with a game against the Seahawks in Week 2. Things won't be getting any easier in Week 3, and that's because the Steelers will be playing in San Francisco, which isn't good news for a team that has a quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) who's never won in the Pacific Time Zone under Mike Tomlin (The Steelers are 1-5 overall with Tomlin out west, but Michael Vick was the starter in the only game they won. Big Ben is 0-5). 

Weird scheduling note: The Steelers will be hosting two Monday night games this year, which is actually pretty rare. The 2019 season marks just the third time in 40 years that the Steelers have hosted multiple Monday games in the same season. The only other times came in 1994 and 2007. 

CBS Sports Writer

John Breech has been at CBS Sports since July 2011 and currently spends most of his time writing about the NFL. He's believed to be one of only three people in the world who thinks that Andy Dalton will... Full Bio

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