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Games to circle: Each AFC team’s toughest 2016 matchup

The most important matchup for every AFC team heading into the 2016 NFL season.

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The NFL schedule was released last month, but now that the draft is in the rearview mirror, we can finally start focusing on the 256 regular-season games to come in 2016. With a mere 122 days remaining until the Panthers and Broncos kick off the season with a Week 1 rematch of their Super Bowl meeting, here’s our take on the toughest game that looms on every AFC team’s schedule this year.

(We’ll tackle the NFC on Tuesday.)

AFC East

New England (Week 7 at Pittsburgh): For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume Tom Brady’s four-game Deflategate suspension is still tied up in the appeals process, pushing the end game in this never-ending saga to 2017 or beyond (do I hear ’20?). While New England’s Week 15 trip to Denver and the AFC title game rematch with the Broncos will be challenging, there will be no Peyton Manning or Brock Osweiler wearing orange and blue that day to raise the degree of difficulty. That makes Patriots at Steelers in Week 7 our choice. Pittsburgh features a host of dynamic offensive playmakers and poses as one of the few legitimate threats to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

Miami (Week 1 at Seattle): The Adam Gase coaching era brings a wave of hope, but it could also bring an early dose of harsh reality to Miami, with the Dolphins facing three 2015 playoff teams on the road in the first four weeks of the season. Why delay the drama? Miami’s opener at Seattle represents not only the longest domestic road trip you can take in the NFL, but drawing the Week 1 assignment in front of the rabid Seahawks fans who pack CenturyLink Field is a tough way for any team to debut. Miami hasn’t made this long trek since ’04, and hasn’t won in Seattle since ’01, the last season the Seahawks inhabited the long-gone Kingdome.

New York Jets (Week 2 at Buffalo): The Jets swept the Dolphins last season and split with the division champion Patriots, but a pair of 22–17 losses to the Rex Ryan-led Bills (what are the odds of that score turning up twice?) kept New York from being the worst-to-first Cinderella story of the year in the NFL. The crusher of course came in Week 17 in Buffalo, when quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick melted down in the fourth quarter and cost the 10–6 Jets a playoff berth. New York gets its shot at redemption almost immediately, with a Week 2 Thursday night trip to Ralph Wilson Stadium, after opening at home against Cincinnati four days earlier. The Jets need to put their hex against Rex to bed early to get past 2015 for good.

Buffalo (Week 4 or 8 vs. New England): It almost goes without saying that for Rex Ryan and his long-suffering Bills, the white whale they both have long pursued hails from Foxborough, Mass. Beating the Patriots is where the story starts and ends for Buffalo, which is still working on that mind-boggling 16-year playoff drought. The Bills were 0–2 against Belichick and Brady last season, finishing 8–8 and in third place in the AFC East. This year, Week 4 brings the first test, with the Bills trying to win for the only second time ever at Gillette Stadium (and that 2014 Week 17 upset came when Brady was yanked early with the playoffs looming). If Brady’s suspension is in effect on Oct. 2, the focus will shift to the Week 8 rematch in Buffalo, with even more on the line in terms of the Bills’ quest to return to division relevancy.

AFC North

Cincinnati (Week 15 vs. Pittsburgh): The Steelers are in the Bengals’ heads. Cincinnati knows it, and Pittsburgh knows it. The makings of a truly special 2015 season for the Bengals was ruined when the Steelers twice marched into Paul Brown Stadium and escaped with a win—first in Week 14 in the game Andy Dalton broke his thumb, and then again in that hotly contested first-round playoff battle that disintegrated into late-game chaos. That makes Pittsburgh’s visit to Cincinnati for a Sunday Night Football showdown in Week 15 the easy choice. The Bengals won at Heinz Field last season, but couldn’t protect their home turf when it mattered most. The score with the division rival Steelers must be settled.

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Baltimore (Week 14 at New England): After being treated to at least one Ravens-Patriots showdown for six consecutive years (2009 through ’14, including three memorable playoff matchups), Baltimore and New England didn’t face each other last season, interrupting the AFC’s most compelling rivalry. But the Ravens and Pats will be back at it again in Week 14, when Baltimore makes the trek to Foxborough for a Monday night affair in the chill of mid-December. Joe Flacco and the Ravens won the Super Bowl in ’12. Tom Brady and the Patriots did the same in ’14. Whose turn will it be in ’16?

Pittsburgh (Week 9 at Baltimore): The Steelers have that measuring stick home game against New England in Week 7, but it’s their next game that might be the real challenge: a Week 9 trip to Baltimore, coming off their midseason bye. Though the injury-riddled Ravens endured their worst season since 2007 last year, going just 5–11, they somehow managed to beat Pittsburgh twice, eking out a pair of three-point wins. The second of those, in Baltimore in Week 16, against the Ryan Mallet-led Ravens, nearly cost Pittsburgh a playoff berth. But the Jets’ Week 17 collapse at Buffalo rescued the Steelers, who accepted the charity and won at Cleveland to lock up a spot. For the Super Bowl-contending Steelers, taking care of business this year starts with beating archrival Baltimore.

Cleveland (Week 4 at Washington): In the stacked AFC North, the last-place Browns must let baby steps pass for progress. And in that vein, Cleveland’s Week 4 trip to defending NFC East champion Washington is an obvious check point in terms of improvement. If the Browns really are Robert Griffin III’s team to lead in 2016, as they appear to be, then RG3’s return to FedEx Field is as big a mental hurdle to clear as he’ll face this season. If he can go into that situation which is so fraught with emotion and still manage to succeed, it’ll bode very well for the final three months of the season and perhaps the rejuvenation of his career. These Browns aren’t going to the playoffs in the first season under new head coach Hue Jackson, but their trip to Washington will provide a legitimate big-game setting.

AFC South

Houston (Week 7 at Denver): Brock Bowl 1 should have been the NFL’s Thursday night season opener. But the suits on Park Ave. preferred to showcase that Carolina at Denver rematch of Super Bowl 50 for the Sept. 8 kickoff game. No matter. I’m still more interested in all the intriguing subplots that now tie Houston and Denver together in the battle for supremacy in AFC, especially since the Texans hired away the Broncos’ presumed franchise quarterback of the future in Brock Osweiler. On the Monday night of Week 7 in Denver, Osweiler returns to town to try and make John Elway & Co. regret letting him get away, while both Broncos coach Gary Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips scheme to defeat their former team.

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Indianapolis (Week 4 at Jaguars in London):

Jacksonville (Week 1 vs. Green Bay): In this five-year run of unmitigated misery endured by Jaguars fans, Jacksonville has started each season atrociously, going 1–5, 0–6, 0–8, 1–9 and 1–5 from 2011 on. That makes getting off to a strong start essential to proving that this year will be different. After a great personnel haul in the off-season, there’s optimism about a corner being turned in Jacksonville. But nothing will prove it’s real like a Week 1 win, something the Jaguars haven’t managed since 2011. Green Bay visits Jacksonville in the season opener, and that only means the resonance of the upset will be that much deeper when the playoff perennial Packers fall. Setting an early tone that it’s time to win in 2016 will do wonders for Gus Bradley’s emerging team.

Tennessee (Week 4 at Houston): The Titans’ roster has also made strides this off-season, but after going 5–27 and winning just two games in the AFC South (both at home against Jacksonville) the past two years, there’s plenty of ground to make up. But that dismal division mark is the first thing that must be reversed, and Tennessee’s initial chance to make progress there comes in Week 4 at defending AFC South champion Houston. The Texans beat the Titans by a combined score of 54–12 last season in their two meetings, including a 34–6 drubbing in Houston in Week 16. Pulling an upset of the Texans on the road would make an early and unequivocal statement that these are not the same old Titans.

AFC West

Denver (Week 15 vs. New England): No reason to overthink this one. The Broncos have won the AFC Championship Game in 2013 and ’15, and the Patriots won it in ’14. When they meet in Denver in Week 15, chances are good the race for the AFC’s home-field advantage in the playoffs will be part of the equation. For New England, beating a Mark Sanchez-led Broncos team might not be the same as besting Peyton Manning or Brock Osweiler (they did neither last season in two tries), but Denver’s challenge of defeating Tom Brady & Co. remains formidable. The Broncos’ defense was up to the task last season, but that was then and this is now. Or at least it will be come mid-December.

Kansas City (Week 10 at Carolina):  During that improbable 11-game winning streak that highlighted the Chiefs’ rollercoaster-like 2015 season, they knocked off AFC playoff teams such as Pittsburgh, Denver and Houston, narrowly losing at New England in the divisional round. So nothing about competing in the AFC heavyweight division should particularly faze Kansas City at this point. But there’s a legit prove-it game waiting on the Chiefs schedule this season, in the form of a Week 10 trip to Carolina, the defending NFC champion and the only team to win more games in a row (14) than Kansas City did last year. Both teams are known for trying to impose their will on opponents with superb defenses, productive running games, and play-making quarterbacks who were No. 1 overall draft picks. And Ron Rivera even used to coach on Andy Reid’s defensive staff in Philadelphia.

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Oakland (Week 9 vs. Kansas City):

San Diego (Week 1 at Kansas City): The Chargers were a lackluster 0–6 in the AFC West last season, but they weren’t uncompetitive by any stretch of the imagination—four of those losses came by one-score margins, as nine of their 12 losses were last season. That makes San Diego’s Week 1 opener at Kansas City as good a place to start as any in turning last year’s season-defining stat around. The Chargers have all three of their division road games out of the way before Halloween, and a win against the Chiefs—who won 11 of their last 12 games in 2015—could well propel them on to bigger and much better things in this season that doubles as a weekly referendum on whether the franchise will remain in San Diego with a new stadium.