Don’t tell me the schedule doesn’t matter in the NFL.
I have heard the argument. Teams change so much from one year to the next that last year’s winning percentage is yesterday’s news.
Point taken. But there’s something to say for what it meant last season. The Dolphins, who faced the toughest schedule by those numbers, went from a team on the rise at 11-5 to a disappointing 7-9. The Panthers, owners of the second-toughest slate, fell from division champs to 8-8, with three of those wins coming at the end of the season. The Patriots, Falcons, Bills and Buccaneers — the next four teams in line — all took steps backward of different degrees or failed to meet expectations.
And on the other side of the coin, the Vikings (31st-toughest schedule) and Packers (30th), had big seasons. So did playoff-bound teams, Baltimore (28th), Arizona (27th) and Cincinnati (tied for 22nd).
Of course, it’s not an exact science. The Jets last season played a tough schedule (seventh toughest) and led at halftime of the AFC title game. The year prior, the Steelers played one of the NFL’s most brutal schedules and credited that gantlet for having prepared them to win it all. It’s true for the other end of the spectrum. Playing the supposedly easiest schedule (opponents’ .414 winning percentage) didn’t help the Bears from being a huge disappointment last season, nor did it turn the Browns (25th toughest) or Rams (tied for 22nd) into good teams overnight.
But I believe there’s something there. One of the reasons there is so much parity in the NFL is, in part, because of the rotating schedule. One year you get the NFC East; the next you get the AFC West. Your fortunes can change that quickly. Think about it: That’s possibly a three-game swing right there for most teams.
With this idea in mind, here’s a look at the teams — three of each — that will benefit the most and be hindered the most by whom they play this season.
Three who will be helped by the schedule
Is there a better time for the Cardinals to get helped by the schedule, coming off one of the toughest offseasons since the team moved to Arizona? Sure, part of it is the division they play in — the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers all have bottom-five NFL schedules by the numbers. But the Cards have some nice breaks going in their favor. Their first three games, breaking in Matt Leinart again, come against the 1-15 Rams, the 9-7 Falcons and the 5-11 Raiders before tough games against the Chargers and Saints. But after the Week Six bye, it’s cake city. They do not face back-to-back teams with winning records from that point on. Don’t bury them just yet.
People are down on this team following the loss to the Jets and a few big names who departed. But like the Cardinals, the Chargers will have six division games in which they very well could be favored each time. Getting off to cold starts has been a problem the past few years, but the first six games appear to be fairly smooth sailing: at Kansas City; vs. Jacksonville; at Seattle; vs. Arizona; at Oakland; and at St. Louis. Two of those road games are on the West Coast, and the other two are against rebuilding Midwest teams. After a tougher middle part, the Chargers finish with the Raiders, Chiefs and 49ers at home in Weeks 13-15, though their final two are on the road against the Bengals and Broncos. Still, not a daunting schedule for a team that still should take the AFC West without issue.
This is a tough team to read heading into this season, especially with all the veterans it has lost or let go. But there’s a feeling the Panthers could be lying in the weeds, ready to pounce, and the schedule lines up pretty well for that to happen if things go right. They open the New Meadowlands Stadium with the Giants after helping burn down the old one after a Week 16 thrashing, and though emotion will be on the Giants’ side, I think the Panthers could sneak up on them here. Things get a little tougher with the Bengals and Saints early, but remember the Panthers almost won in New Orleans last season. The Week Six bye isn’t a bad spot, and they have games against losing teams in three of the next four games. Tough non-conference games against the Ravens and Steelers aside, plus a long trip to Seattle in Week 13, this is not a brutal slate. One more bonus: 14 of the team’s 16 games are scheduled at 1 p.m. EST, which coaches love.
Three who will be hurt by the schedule
How’s this for an opening trio? They get the Colts, winners of all but one of the franchise’s games in Houston, at home. Then it’s a road trip to Washington to face their former play-caller in Kyle Shanahan and what should be a much better Redskins team. And third, they get the Cowboys in Houston, and you can bet that Jerry Jones hasn’t forgotten that Sunday night game, the first regular-season contest in Texans history, in which Jones’ Cowboys were embarrassed. Mind you, these all will be played without star LB Brian Cushing, who will miss the first four. It doesn’t let up much at all. There are home games against the Giants, Chargers and Ravens, plus tough road assignments at the Jets and Eagles, as well as the Colts rematch in Indy, where the team’s record is awful. Those ready to vault the Texans up to the next level had better consider this thorny schedule before doing so.
The Patriots might be a better football team this season, but their competition will not get easier. They open with a pair of playoff teams, the Bengals at home and Jets on the road, and have five more games against postseason teams from a year ago. After the Week Five bye, the Patriots face a nasty trio: the Ravens (in a rematch of the playoff loss from January) in Foxborough, a road trip to San Diego and a visit from the Vikings and — we think — Brett Favre. Although the Patriots are used to preparing for and playing in prime-time games, the NFL’s schedule gods did them no favors by giving them four night contests and no back-to-back 1 p.m. starts until Weeks 16 and 17.
Like the Texans, a slow start is possible. The first three games are at New England, home against the Ravens and at a sneaky Panthers team. Teams that start off 1-2 or 0-3 have a hard time making the playoffs, historically. After the Week Six bye, it’s a tough quartet: at Atlanta, then home against the Dolphins and Steelers, before heading to Indy to take on the Colts. After a week breather against the Bills, the heat returns. The Bengals get their nemesis Jets on a short week on Thanksgiving in New York, followed by the Saints (home), Steelers (road), Browns (home), Chargers (home) and Ravens (road) to close out the season. That’s little room for breathing the final three months for a team that didn’t exactly impress down the stretch last season.
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