With the NFL schedule now released, there is a pretty clear winner in terms of who has the easiest schedule – the New England Patriots.
There are three crucial elements to how tough a schedule is – the first four games, the last three games and the three weeks involving their bye week. The rest of the games matter of course but in terms of scheduling the first three set the tone for the season, the last three games show how tough the road into the playoffs will be and the position of the bye week determines how top or bottom heavy the schedule is as well as the fact that the game before and game after the bye is always important with helping momentum.
In terms of these three criteria, the Patriots couldn’t ask for much better. They start the season on the road at Tennessee and then the next three games are all in the northeast – at home to the Cardinals, at home to the Ravens on Sunday Night Football and then on the road at Buffalo. In terms of the first four teams, the only one that scares you is Baltimore although perhaps they shouldn’t given the number of personnel they lost this offseason and the way that defense is aging. In terms of travel, the first four games are a breeze.
To end the season, the Patriots first have a home Sunday Night Football matchup against the 49ers, travel down to Florida to play Jacksonville before coming back home to face the Dolphins. Playing against a 49ers team who will be pushing for a playoff berth is no joke but the Patriots will have the advantage of not only facing San Francisco at home so it’s the 49ers who have to travel from coast to coast but also they get to play at home in the cold which in a crucial game like this will be a massive advantage. This may or may not be the game that gets them into the playoffs but considering that their last two games are against the Jags and Fins, you have to say that the easy finish will put even less pressure on the Pats in the 49ers game.
Finally, the bye week – this is where New England have really struck it lucky. First of all, their bye falls on week 9 which is absolutely perfect. The closer to the middle of the season the better and the Patriots have lucked out on getting their slapbang in the middle. Now you look at the schedule around it – before the bye they are on the road to the lowly St Louis Rams and then after the bye they have a comfortable home game against Buffalo. Two games against low ranked teams on either side of the perfect bye week placement – what more could you ask for?
In terms of the teams the Patriots will face this year, the toughest games won’t be until late in the year. The Ravens should provide a challenge in week 3 but their personnel losses, problems in the secondary and aging defensive leaders should make that game more routine. The two games against the Jets this year fall on weeks 7 and 12 but these may not be considered a challenge either given how easily the Patriots handled them last year. The only really tough games in the schedule come in the last quarter with Houston in week 14 and San Francisco week 15. Lucky for New England that they get both of those games at home.
In terms of easy schedules, I defy anyone to suggest that a team other than New England has the easiest schedule. Is this a good thing? It should be – but you never know. The team with the easiest schedule has missed the playoffs in each of the last five seasons which includes – you guessed it – the New England Patriots in 2008 when they finished 11-5. Now that was the year of Tom Brady’s big injury but it just goes to show that you never know what could happen.