Steelers, AFC North face tremendous challenges

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin (left) has a 2008 schedule that causes double takes, including consecutive games against the Colts, Chargers, Bengals, Patriots and the Cowboys; the Patriots' slate is smooth enough to make coach Bill Belichick (right) smile. Getty Images, US Presswire

The flag that will hang above the eventual winner of the AFC North will be tattered and torn.

Now that the 2008 NFL schedule is released, it looks worse on paper for AFC North teams than it did at the end of the regular season when opponents weren't attached to dates. The AFC North faces the perfect storm of nondivision opponents, a storm that hits as hard as an F5 tornado.

The AFC North faces the AFC South and the NFC East, divisions coming off seasons in which each of their teams was 8-8 or better. Since the NFL went to eight four-team divisions, the only other time divisions went 8-8 or better was 2002, when the AFC East and AFC West didn't have losing teams. But no division was scheduled to face the eight winning teams in those two divisions the following season.

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has to read the schedule and weep. The only time he faces a team with a losing record is when he plays four games against division rivals the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers' opponents' .598 combined winning percentage is the toughest in recent memory and one of the toughest in NFL history. Overall, the Steelers play 12 games against teams that didn't have losing records in 2007.

What makes it worse is that the games against the Bengals and Ravens are spread out one every month. There are no breaks. Nearly each week is like a playoff game for the Steelers.

Let's put those numbers in perspective.

• Since 1997, the toughest schedule belonged to the 2004 Cleveland Browns. They played 11 teams with .500 records or better, teams that had a combined winning percentage of .590. The Browns went 4-12 and Butch Davis was fired as head coach.

• The impact of playing 11 .500-or-better teams is hard enough. Playing 12 is almost unprecedented. The 2004 Miami Dolphins did it and went 4-12. The 2006 Oakland Raiders went 2-14 playing a dozen .500-or-better teams. Longtime NFL coach Dick Vermeil believed the attrition of playing too many tough games took its toll. More players get injured playing tougher opponents because every week is a playoff game. The mental fatigue of playing so many intense games wears on a team. Of the 16 teams that played 11 games against .500 teams or better, only two had winning records in those games.

• Compounding the Steelers' problem is how the games are scheduled. Two weeks after an Oct. 26 meeting with the Super Bowl champion Giants, the Steelers face an unenviable task. From Nov. 9 through Dec. 7, they play the Indianapolis Colts, the San Diego Chargers, the Bengals, the New England Patriots and the Dallas Cowboys in succession. The good news is only the New England game is on the road, but that's tempered by the fact that four days after playing the Chargers, the Steelers play the Bengals on a Thursday night.

• Naturally, teams with winning records might not repeat that accomplishment the following season, so the Steelers' schedule might not end up being as hard as the .598 opponents' mark suggests. Still, the NFC East and AFC South have very few holes, so the drop-off might not be much. Since 1997, the best anyone has done against a schedule .530 or tougher was 10 wins and that happened only twice: The 1998 Dolphins went 10-6 against a .531 schedule and the 2005 Redskins went 10-6 against a .539 schedule.

Expect the winner of the AFC North to be an eight-, nine- or 10-win team at best.

The Browns face the second-toughest turnaround schedule in football behind the Steelers. In 2007, they rode the strong arm of Derek Anderson and the hard running of Jamal Lewis to a 10-6 record and were a tiebreaker away from the playoffs. Their .430 schedule was one of the easiest in football. They faced only six teams with .500 records or better and won only two of those games. In 2008, they play a .547 schedule and play 10 games against teams with .500 records or better.

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.