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Around the AFC North: Breaking Down Key Factors in Rivals' Schedules

Cleveland Browns new quarterback Deshaun Watson enters a news conference at the NFL football team's training facility, Friday, March 25, 2022, in Berea, Ohio.

The Ravens have a funky run of AFC East teams to start the season and an AFC North-heavy gauntlet to end the season.

Now let's look at key factors in the rest of the AFC North's schedule:

Cleveland Browns: Easiest Opening Month With Deshaun Watson Suspension Looming

With the possibility of an NFL suspension for new Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson still looming over Cleveland, the Browns' schedule raised some eyebrows in the media.

The Browns' first four games are against the Panthers, Jets, Steelers and Falcons, respectively. Those teams went a combined 25-41-1 last season. It's the "easiest" first month for any team in the league.

If Watson were suspended for some chunk of the beginning of the season, the Browns would at least be without him for the softest part of their schedule.

The schedule does get tougher from there, however. The Browns faded down the stretch last season, losing three straight games to the Raiders, Packers and Steelers to be eliminated from the playoffs. This year, they'll have a midseason gauntlet that will define their 2022 season.

The first starts in Week 5 with the Chargers, Patriots, Ravens and Bengals before the bye. After the bye, the Browns face the Dolphins, Bills and Buccaneers. That's six straight games against AFC playoff contenders, capped by a date with Tom Brady.

"The Browns face a pair of grueling stretches sandwiching their Nov. 6 bye, and they are sure to define Cleveland's season," ESPN’s Jake Trotter wrote. "If the Browns can post a winning record in those seven games, they will be well on their way back to the postseason."

It still remains to be seen whether the NFL will hand down any suspension for Watson this season. He is reportedly set to meet with league official this week.

Pittsburgh Steelers: New Quarterback Will Be Under Early Pressure

Whoever takes over for Ben Roethlisberger is going to be thrown into the fire. The Steelers open against the Bengals on the road, then face the Patriots, Browns, Bills and Buccaneers in four of the next five weeks.

Whether it's rookie Kenny Pickett or veterans Matt Trubisky or Mason Rudolph, they will face three of the five top defenses from last season out of the gate (Bills, Patriots, Browns).

"While the Steelers' schedule isn't as tough as a year ago, they still start out with a gauntlet of difficult games, including a season opener against the Super Bowl runners up," ESPN's Brooke Pryor wrote. "Whoever takes the reins from Ben Roethlisberger will face two AFC North opponents in the first three weeks and tests from two of the league's best in Buffalo and against Tampa Bay and ageless wonder Tom Brady. No pressure."

The Steelers and Ravens don't play each other for the first time until Dec. 11, then meet again on Jan. 1.

Cincinnati Bengals: National Spotlight is on After Super Bowl Appearance

The Bengals are accustomed to flying under the radar. That's out the window after reaching last year's Super Bowl. The Bengals have five primetime games, including two on "Monday Night Football," after having just three primetime games in the previous three seasons combined.

Cincinnati will play on "Sunday Night Football" in Baltimore on Oct. 9. It's good timing for the Bengals because they'll have extra rest coming off "Thursday Night Football" in Week 4 in Miami. The Bengals had the benefit of a last-place schedule last year as well, and now they'll have to take on more heavyweights.

"The Bengals spent last season breaking a playoff drought that lasted more than 30 years. Cincinnati is hoping its struggles on national TV follow that trend as well," ESPN’s Ben Baby wrote. "The target for the rest of the AFC will be on quarterback Joe Burrow and the defending conference champions. The national spotlight will be fixed on the Bengals, too."

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