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NFL Preview Week: Which teams have the toughest four-game stretch to start the season?

Eric Edholm
Shutdown Corner

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There’s little doubt that the schedule is a huge factor in the NFL. The problem is determining which teams have tough ones at the start of the season.

With so much change in the standings year to year, judging the strength-of-schedule metric can be deceiving. Since 1990, at least four teams that did not make the postseason the year prior did so the next season.

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Plus, injuries can change everything in a heartbeat. If a star quarterback goes down, a playoff contender can fall to the ranks of the also-rans.With that it mind, let’s take a look at a smaller sample size of the schedule: the first four games. Getting off to a good start doesn’t portend automatic success (witness the 4-0 Arizona Cardinals last season), but it never hurts.

These are the teams with the toughest roads to navigate early in the season:

10. New York Giants
Also a little deceiving, as last season’s win totals of their first four opponents — Cowboys, Broncos, Panthers and Chiefs — add up to only a .469 win percentage. But consider that three of the four teams have a good chance to up their win totals this season and the fourth, Denver, sets up the always popular Peyton vs. Eli matchup.

9. Atlanta Falcons
Every year the stakes get raised a notch for the Falcons. They open in the Superdome in Sean Payton’s first game in nearly 20 months. Sources indicate it could be loud that day. Then it’s sneaky-tough games against the Rams (home) and Dolphins (road), before a killer matchup in Atlanta against the Patriots. No one said making the Super Bowl would be easy.

8. Cincinnati Bengals

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(USA Today Sports Images)

So you’ve gone ahead and done it, picking the Bengals to make the Super Bowl. Congrats on your "risky" pick. Now better buckle up for a challenging opening quartet. At Chicago Week 1. Rivalry game at home against the Steelers in Week 2. Home against the Packers Week 3. Then on the road for a Browns team seeking respectability. It won’t be an easy slate.

[Slideshow: NFL's toughest opening schedules]

7. Miami Dolphins
Four NFL teams have to go on the road three times in their first four, and the Dolphins are one of them with Browns, Colts and Saints — maybe not the toughest trio from last season, but three teams that can claim to be better this year. Throw in a home date in Week 3 with the Falcons, and you’ve got a tough road for the Dolphins to prove they should be taken seriously.

6. Philadelphia Eagles
It’s a bit deceiving when you find out that the 2012 winning percentage of their first four opponents is a middle-of-the-road .500. But that’s offset by the seemingly improved Chiefs coming to town with former head coach Andy Reid in Week 3 in what is sure to be a highly charged event. The Eagles also have to open in prime time in Week 1 against the Redskins and face Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Week 4. Might be some offense in those games.

5. Buffalo Bills
Imagine you’re new head coach Doug Marrone. You’re facing the prospect of starting a rookie quarterback — injured first-rounder E.J. Manuel or undrafted Jeff Tuel — right off the bat, with the Patriots, Panthers and Ravens (three of the hottest teams down the stretch last season) coming to town looking to whoop some tail. At least their one roadie in that stretch is at the Jets.

4. St. Louis Rams

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(USA Today Sports Images)

So the Rams want to prove they are among the big boys? No sense in wasting time. Week 1 against the Cardinals at home might be a suitable tune-up, but after that it’s a murderer’s row of the Falcons (road), Cowboys (road) and 49ers (home). This young Rams team can’t afford to get too far behind in a loaded NFC West.

3. Oakland Raiders
You have to feel for the Raiders, really. Yes, they get a home date in Week 2 with the two-win Jaguars, whom they beat in Oakland last season. But they go on the road in Weeks 1 and 3 to face the Colts and Broncos, and have a home date with Robert Griffin III and the Redskins in Week 4. Thought No. 1: Is their secondary ready for that? Thought No. 2: Would Terrelle Pryor, if he wins the quarterback job, just up and quit before Week 5?

2. San Francisco 49ers
No team faces a higher winning percentage from 2012 in its first four than San Francisco, which takes on the Packers at home (seeking playoff revenge), the Seahawks in Seattle (a budding bitter rivalry, and the site of their biggest loss in 2012), home against the Colts and at the Rams, a team that should have beaten the 49ers last season. A stiff early test for last season’s Super Bowl runners-up.

1. Green Bay Packers
Is there a tougher opening trio of games than the Packers? They open with the Super Bowl team that trashed them in the playoffs, then come home to face RG3 (we assume) and the Redskins, followed by the chic Super Bowl pick in the Bengals in Cincinnati. That Week 4 bye might sound early, but it will be well earned.

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