Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
Division matchups rightly carry pre-eminent importance in every team's schedule. But never underestimate the importance of the interconference schedule -- those four common AFC opponents each NFC North team finds on its schedule every season.
Last year, Chicago would have earned a playoff spot had it won its final game against the AFC South. Instead, the Bears lost 31-24 to Houston and fell short in the wild-card race. In 2007, Green Bay's division-winning 13-3 record included a 4-0 record against the AFC West. (Second-place Minnesota finished 2-2.)
The Black and Blue has a tough task ahead in 2009, taking on the division that housed two of the NFL's best teams last season in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. So let's take an early look at some of the themes that should develop this season against the (supposedly) rough-and-tumble AFC North and how they might impact the division race in these parts.
1. Detroit was 0-16 last season, but its new coach went 4-0 against the AFC North in his previous job. As the defensive coordinator in Tennessee, Jim Schwartz helped the Titans defeat Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Included in that run was a 31-14 late-December shellacking of the Steelers. Schwartz's new team is in a much different place than the Titans were last season, but it's a rare advantage to have seen all four interconference opponents the previous season. The Lions can use every edge they can find.
2. Who will have the last laugh between Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis and Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson (Oct. 18)? As you might recall, Peterson said at the Pro Bowl that he wanted to gain 12 pounds during the offseason. "I don't think too many guys would be excited to see me at 230 two times a year," Peterson said. But his father told USA Today last month that a group of veterans -- including Lewis -- "set up" his son, hoping to convince him to make a change that ultimately would slow him down. Let's see if Peterson, who by all accounts will remain close to his playing weight of 217 pounds, returns the favor.
3. The AFC North boasts two of the game's best pass-rushing linebackers in Pittsburgh's James Harrison (16 sacks in 2008) and Baltimore's Terrell Suggs (eight). You never know exactly where outside linebackers will line up in a 3-4 defense, but I'm guessing they'll find their way toward the NFC North's host of young right tackles. Chicago (Chris Williams), Minnesota (Phil Loadholt) and Green Bay (Allen Barbre or T.J. Lang) are all expected to have new starters at the position -- and Detroit's Gosder Cherilus is entering his first full season as a starter. Defensive coordinators would be remiss not to test all four spots.
4. This season will be a referendum on whether Orlando Pace can still play left tackle in the NFL. During the free-agent period, Baltimore heavily courted Pace but wanted him to move to right tackle so that youngster Jared Gaither could continue his development on the left side. Pace, however, wanted to maintain his traditional position and ultimately signed with Chicago. The Ravens have installed rookie Michael Oher as their new right tackle and suddenly have a raw set of tackles. We'll soon find out if Pace can give the Bears a full year at left tackle, or whether the Ravens were right to hold firm on youth.
5. To the extent that practicing against a 3-4 defense helps in game preparation, Green Bay should have a clear advantage over its NFC North rivals. The Packers' offense spent all spring practicing against its 3-4 scheme and won't face that choppy in-season transition when preparing for the Steelers, Ravens and Browns. This is becoming less of an issue every year as more NFL teams return to the 3-4 -- the total is expected to be 13 in 2009 -- but familiarity can only help the Packers in this vein.
6. The Bears, Packers and Lions all are working hard to improve their weak pass rush. Two AFC North teams -- Cincinnati and Pittsburgh -- are hoping to shore up their pass protection. Which teams can make quicker enhancements? You might know that the Bengals gave up the NFL's third-most sacks last season (51). But it might have escaped you that the Steelers were right behind them with 49 sacks allowed. It almost goes without saying that the best way to stop the Bengals' Carson Palmer and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger is to keep them from throwing the ball.
7. AFC North teams like to think of themselves the same way we do here in the Black and Blue, as hard-nosed, bad-weather running teams. Minnesota defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams are two of the best run-stoppers in the game, and there's a little stretch of the season where they would be particularly missed should their NFL suspensions kick in. (Such a scenario would require a prolonged but ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge to their NFL discipline.) The Vikings play Baltimore and Pittsburgh in consecutive October weeks (Oct. 18 against the Ravens and Oct. 25 at Pittsburgh). That makes for two old-fashioned football matchups -- if the Williams Wall is on the field.
Who benefits most?
In some ways, this schedule ensures that each NFC North team will be playing 10 divisional games this season. There are many similarities between the general styles of the Black and Blue and AFC North. Minnesota's defense should match the intensity of the physical offenses of Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Green Bay's offense shouldn't be surprised by the 3-4 defense, but its own defense won't have the advantage of surprise, either. It's too early to make specific predictions, but it's safe to say that whoever has the divisional advantage in the NFC North will also fare best against the AFC North.