Not all schedules are equal. The NFL doesn’t play a round robin, so some teams benefit from the good fortune of having much easier opponents than fellow playoff contenders.
The AFC West was the main beneficiary last year. The Chiefs rode the easiest schedule in the NFL to a wild-card spot (the only winning team the Chiefs beat all year was Philadelphia, and even that game was fortunate because Kansas City caught the Eagles before they made the quarterback change to Nick Foles). The Broncos had good fortune too. They got Football Outsiders’ 31st ranked schedule, rode it to a No. 1 seed and a Super Bowl berth. The AFC West played its non-conference games against the NFC East last year, but this year it gets the NFC West, clearly the best division in football. No more easy passes.
Meanwhile, other teams are going to find their path to the playoffs a lot easier. It’s impossible to predict which schedules will be toughest or weakest, because teams that drew Houston or Atlanta last year at this time were a bit nervous, more nervous than those who had to play Carolina, for example. We can’t be sure yet which games on each team’s schedule will be the hardest ones. But we can give it our best guess to try to figure out which teams look like they have a much tougher road in 2014, and which might ride a fortunate slate to the postseason.
PLAYOFF TEAM IN SOME DANGER BECAUSE OF A ROUGH SCHEDULE
The Broncos are a good team. And they added a lot of talent. But their schedule, the second-weakest in the NFL last year, is about as tough as it gets this season.
Denver’s road schedule includes five playoff teams (Kansas City, San Diego, New England, Seattle and Cincinnati), an 8-8 team that barely missed (N.Y. Jets), a 7-9 team that was better than its record (St. Louis) and an Oakland team that should be improved. Denver’s home schedule includes six teams that were at least .500 in 2014, including San Francisco and Arizona. That change from the NFC East to the NFC West is enormous.
The Broncos will be challenged right away. They start the season at home against Indianapolis, then host Kansas City, then travel to Seattle before the bye in Week 4. That's a combined 2013 record of 35-13 for Denver's first three opponents, including a road date against a Seahawks team that destroyed it in the Super Bowl.
The Broncos should win the AFC West, because they’re clearly the best team, and division rivals like San Diego and Kansas City are also going to get a much tougher schedule. But the goal in Denver is the Super Bowl, and it’s possible the Broncos could be a better team and not even get a first-round bye. Or, they might be a little beat up by January after facing a schedule that has 12 games against teams that went at least .500 in 2013.
PLAYOFF TEAM THAT HAS THE EASIEST ROAD TO RETURN
As StampedeBlue.com points out, the Colts have the easiest schedule based on 2013 winning percentages. The combined record of their 2014 opponents is .430, lowest in the NFL. That’s what happens when you’re in a division with the Titans, Jaguars and Texans.
Indianapolis also gets out of the NFC West vortex this year. It replaces the toughest division in football with the NFC East, which should be a little better this year but it won’t be great either. And the best team in that division, Philadelphia, comes to Indianapolis.
After playing New England on Nov. 16, the Colts' final six games are against Jacksonville, Washington, Cleveland, Houston, Dallas and Tennessee. The combined 2013 record of the first four games in that stretch was 13-51. Tennessee and Dallas were 7-9 and 8-8, respectively.
The Colts aren’t better on paper than the Broncos. But when you consider that one team has an impossibly tough schedule and the other has what looks like the easiest one in the NFL, don’t be too surprised if the Colts finish the season with a better seed in the playoffs.
NON-PLAYOFF TEAM THAT HAS A CHIEFS-LIKE PATH BACK TO PLAYOFFS
The Steelers’ schedule isn’t as friendly as Kansas City’s last year, because that was a perfect storm, but it’s certainly one that makes you feel like Pittsburgh could improve on last year’s 8-8 mark and get back to the postseason.
The Steelers’ toughest non-division opponents come to Pittsburgh: Indianapolis, Kansas City, New Orleans and what should be an improved Tampa Bay team. The Steelers’ non-division road games are against the Jaguars, Titans, Jets, Falcons and Panthers. If the Panthers take a step back, as it looks like they might, there’s not a game in that group the Steelers can’t win.
The stretch in which Pittsburgh should be able to get on a roll starts on Oct. 5, in Week 5, and goes through its bye. The stretch is games at Jacksonville, at Cleveland, vs. Houston, vs. Indianapolis, vs. Baltimore, at N.Y. Jets and at Tennessee. The Steelers will need to be sitting pretty after that, because of those seven games they should be favored in at least five and maybe all seven.
If the Steelers can play well at home against the tough opponents and handle business on the road against the teams they should beat, don’t be surprised if the Steelers are back on top of the AFC North this year.
NON-PLAYOFF TEAM THAT WILL BE WONDERING WHAT IT DID TO DESERVE THIS
Statistically, the Raiders have the toughest schedule in the NFL this year, based on 2013 records. Again, that’s what happens when your non-conference partner switches from the NFC East to the NFC West.
The combined 2013 winning percentage of the Raiders’ opponents this season is .578. That’s not nice for a team that finished last season on a six-game losing streak.
The Raiders are the only team in football that has to play every divisional game against a 2013 playoff team. Then add on those games against the 49ers, Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams. Oh, and here’s a road game at New England as a bonus.
How's this for a brutal stretch, starting on Nov. 2: at Seattle, vs. Denver, at San Diego, vs. Kansas City, at St. Louis, vs. San Francisco, at Kansas City. That's six 2013 playoff teams in seven weeks, and the one game against a non-playoff team is a trip to St. Louis.
The Raiders added a lot of mid-level free agents this offseason and should be better. They need to be better, because the schedule is much, much tougher than it was a year ago.
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