Steelers, AFC North face tremendous challenges
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has to read the new 2008 schedule and weep, while Patriots coach Bill Belichick should look forward to a magic-carpet ride to January, John Clayton writes.
As the Vermeil scheduling theory goes, it's not how you do against winning teams, it's how many times you play them that is the problem. In any given season, only five to eight teams are going to have winning records against teams .500 or better. Normally, a playoff team plays eight games against teams .500 or better and loses three. Play 10 games against those .500-or-better teams and usually the best a team can hope for is a 6-4 record against them.
The way the 2008 schedule breaks down in the AFC, it's easy to see why very few owners raised their hands when the idea of reseeding the playoffs to accommodate good wild-card teams was presented. The schedule breaks easy for the AFC East and the AFC West, which would have doomed winners of the AFC South and AFC North to being road teams in the first round of the playoffs.
The Patriots, for example, play one of the 10 easiest schedules in NFL history, a .387 magic-carpet ride that should allow them to win at least 14 games in 2008. Only five times do they face a team that finished 2007 with a .500-or-better record. The Patriots and teams in the AFC East play the NFC West and the AFC West, divisions that produced only two winning teams and six other teams with combined records of 31-65.
The difference in schedule difficulty between the Patriots and the Steelers would make it almost impossible for the Steelers to keep up with the Patriots in a battle for home-field advantage. If the best the Steelers could hope for is a .600 record against winning teams, which is no easy feat, the Steelers would have three more losses than the Patriots just because of the schedule.
Imagine spotting Bill Belichick and the Patriots three games in a 16-game race.
The schedule for the Patriots is incredibly easy. They start the season with four games against losing teams and have a bye week. They should go into an Oct. 12 Sunday night game against the Chargers with a 4-0 record. Their next game against a winning team is Nov. 2 on Sunday night against the Colts.
The Chargers also have a big advantage because of the schedule. They play a .422 schedule and face only four games against teams with .500 records or better. The AFC West drew the AFC East and the NFC South. The Chargers play six games in their division against losing teams. October is the only tough part of their first-half schedule. They play host to the Patriots and have to go to London to play the Saints two weeks later. They should be 5-0 going into the Patriots game.
After enduring back-to-back November slugfests against the Steelers (Nov. 16) and the Colts (Nov. 23), the Chargers have a relatively easy slate. Of their last five games, only one comes against a team with a winning 2007 record (Dec. 21 at Tampa Bay).
All in all, the AFC race should be easy to figure as long as the Colts, Patriots and Chargers win their divisions. The Patriots and Chargers will be among the top two teams. The Colts will be the third seed.
The winner of the AFC North will be tattered and torn.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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