Is the AFC North the Toughest Division in the NFL?

With the 2011-2012 NFL season approaching the midway point, it has been said by many writers and critics that the Pittsburgh Steelers are 5-2 because of their light schedule. They have not won a game against a team with a winning record. While this is true to an extent, someone must come to their defense.

Lets start by how the schedules are determined.

1. Divisional games: Six games (one each home and away) vs. a team’s three Divisional opponents.
2. Intra-Conference rotation: Four games (two home, two away) vs. teams from another division, by rotation, within a teams conference.
3. Inter-Conference rotation: Four games (two home, two away) vs. teams from another division, by rotation, from the opposite conference.
4. Standings-Based matchups: Two games (one home, one away) vs. teams with the same standing from the two remaining divisions within a team’s conference.

The Steelers won their division last year. Thus, they play the division champions of the two remaining divisions within their conference. This year that will be New England (14-2 in 2010) and Kansas City (10-6 in 2010). The other NFC teams on their schedule are from the NFC West. The Seahawks were the NFC West Division Champs last year and beat the Saints in the Playoffs. The Steelers will also play the 49ers in week 15, who by the way is leading their division and recently beat the undefeated Lions. They also play back to back teams who just came off of a bye the week before, (Cardinals and Patriots). Thus these teams have an extra week to rest up and prepare to play them.

Did I mention that the Steelers play 6 games within their own conference, the AFC North? This is the toughest conference in the NFL. Don’t roll your eyes just yet. I can prove it. It is only conference in the NFL where every team is at .500 or better. The top four defenses in the NFL (Ravens, Bengals, Steelers, Browns) are from the AFC North. They customarily beat each other up within the division.

There is no way to know from year to year who will be the best team next year. The games played this year are based on the standings of the previous season, not drawn from a hat. There are many critics who get paid to comment on teams and make statements to spur fan reaction. Most of the statements made against the Steelers are from rival fans.

You won’t hear me state that the Packers are 7-0 or the Patriots are 5-1 because they didn’t play anyone or they have a weak schedule. They have those records because they are good teams who can win week-in and week-out from year to year. I can predict, but I can’t tell you who this years Super bowl champion will be. As Chris Berman would say, “That’s why they play the games.”

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