Ranking the NFL's Toughest Schedules of 2014

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Who has the toughest schedule in the NFL in 2014? Who has the easiest?

Ranking the NFL's Toughest Schedules of 2014

 


The NFL has little control over the schedule.

The rotation of crossover divisional opponents is set in stone years in advance and the six divisional games won’t change unless the league expands. Really, the NFL can control two games per team in an effort to make the best team’s schedules more difficult and to give the perceived weaker teams an easier path.

The big news that comes from the annual schedule release is times, dates, locations, bye weekends and days of the week. The NFL can backload, shorten the work week, send a team to London or frontload a team’s schedule. The goal for the NFL is, with most things, to create balance among all 32 franchises.

But the fans know better and last year was a perfect example. I ranked San Diego, Indianapolis and Kansas City as the three easiest schedules in the NFL. And all three teams took major steps forward to earn a postseason berth.

The important thing to remember is ranking NFL schedules based on last year’s winning percentages is short-sighted and inaccurate. Oakland is ranked No. 1 because they played in a division with three playoff teams and there is no certainty that Kansas City or San Diego will repeat. Conversely, the AFC South appears to give the Colts and Titans the two easiest schedules in the league but no one believes the Texans will go 2-14 again (which counts as 4-28 for Indianapolis and Tennessee when it comes to opponents' record) — which obviously impacts their opponents' winning percentage from a year ago.

There will be teams that improve and teams that take steps back, so projecting the shifts in the landscape are much more important than last year’s winning percentage.

So who has the toughest NFL schedule heading into 2014?

1. St. Louis Rams
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC East

Swing Games: Minnesota, at Tampa Bay
Opponents ’13 Record: 56.4% (3rd)

Having to play Seattle and San Francisco four times as well as two dates with a Cardinals team that won 10 games a year ago gives St. Louis the toughest six-game divisional stretch in the NFL — by a wide margin. Having to face three playoff teams from the AFC West and a balanced NFC East makes rotational play difficult as well. Swing games against Minnesota and Tampa Bay are a welcome sight but those could be the two easiest NFC games the Rams play and they happen in the first two weeks of the season. Even the bye week is poorly positioned in Week 4 with an eight-week stretch where St. Louis may not win a game against seven playoff teams and the Cardinals.

2. Oakland Raiders
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC West
Swing Games: Houston, at Cleveland
Opponents ’13 Record: 57.8% (1st)

According to the records, Oakland has the toughest path in the NFL next year. While the slate is packed with elite teams — including six divisional games against playoff teams from last year — there are still chances for wins. Playing the AFC East gives the Raiders one nasty game (New England) and three against teams at .500 or below a year ago, while swing games with the Browns and Texans are “supposed” to be easier. That said, playing in the toughest division in its conference and having to face all four teams from the NFC West makes Oakland's slate one of the toughest in the AFC this fall.

3. Arizona Cardinals
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC East

Swing Games: Detroit, at Atlanta
Opponents ’13 Record: 54.7% (8th)

Oddly, the Cardinals will visit San Diego in the final preseason game before hosting San Diego in Week 1 in one of the more bizarre starts to a season in ’14. The bye week is extremely early (Week 4) but is positioned between games with the 49ers and Broncos. After Denver, the slate lightens up for Arizona with only one game against a playoff team between Week 6 and Week 11 and that is the Eagles at home. The Cards better get some work done early, however, as the final six weeks will be nasty with two games against Seattle as well as dates with Atlanta, Kansas City, at St. Louis and the season finale in San Francisco.

4. Seattle Seahawks
AFC/NFC Crossover:  AFC West, NFC East

Swing Games: Green Bay, at Carolina
Opponents ’13 Record: 56.1% (6th)

First and foremost, playing the NFC West makes for the toughest divisional slate in the league, however, Seattle doesn’t have to play… Seattle twice either. The AFC West had three playoff teams last year and should once again be one of the toughest divisions in the AFC. And swing games with potential division champs Green Bay and Carolina makes for a nasty path to a repeat. Three road games from Week 13 to Week 16 — at San Francisco, Philadelphia and Arizona — with a home test against the 49ers might be the toughest stretch any team in the NFL will face all season. And the year begins with three playoff teams: Green Bay, at San Diego and a Super Bowl rematch at home against Denver.

5. Denver Broncos
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC West
Swing Games: Indianapolis, at Cincinnati
Opponents ’13 Record: 57.0% (2nd)

Not having to face themselves twice in divisional play gives the Broncos the easiest divisional schedule in the AFC West. And facing New England, Indianapolis and Cincinnati in AFC play means that Denver will play nine games against AFC playoff teams from a year ago as well as the two teams who met in the NFC Championship Game. Sure-fire wins over Oakland and the rest of the AFC East provide breathers in what should be one of the tougher AFC slates of ’14.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC North,
Swing Games: St. Louis, at Washington
Opponents ’13 Record: 48.4% (19th)

It’s hard to see the Bucs, under a first-year head coach, getting a single win in the first six weeks of the season before mercifully getting a week off in Week 7. A home game against the Rams might be the only game Tampa could be competitive in early in the year. The good news is the slate lightens up significantly following the bye with games against the Vikings, Browns, Falcons, Redskins and Bears in order from Weeks 8-12. Finishing with games at Carolina, Green Bay and New Orleans at home is daunting as well. There are not too many guaranteed wins on this schedule for Lovie Smith.

7. Cincinnati Bengals
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC South
Swing Games: Denver, at New England
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.9% (23rd)

The Bengals' first seven games will be a challenge as Marvin Lewis’ squad gets road games with Baltimore, New England and Indianapolis to go with home tilts against Atlanta, Tennessee, Carolina and a rematch with the Ravens. The home games are winnable and an upset or two is needed if Cincinnati wants to take control of the AFC North early in the year. Otherwise, the pressure will be on Cincy to win key swings games late in the year (at New Orleans, at Houston, Denver and two with the Steelers). This is a nasty schedule that features the best two teams in the AFC as swing opponents and at least four very difficult divisional games. The only comfort is a bye week positioned in the middle of the early seven-game gauntlet and a soft(er) middle portion of the slate.

8. San Diego Chargers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC West
Swing Games: Jacksonville, at Baltimore
Opponents ’13 Record: 56.3% (4th)

Four games with the Broncos and Chiefs will be brutal but two with the Raiders are equally as easy. Crossover play also features one extremely winnable game against the Jags and one very tough game at Baltimore. Package that with four against the NFC West and the Bolts can boast one of the AFC’s toughest slates. Few teams will finish with as difficult a stretch as San Diego will with that road trip to Baltimore leading into New England and Denver at home before road trips to San Francisco and Kansas City in the final five games. Getting work done early will be key for Philip Rivers and company out on the West Coast. 

9. Kansas City Chiefs
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC West
Swing Games: Tennessee, at Pittsburgh
Opponents ’13 Record: 55.9% (7th)

The Chiefs showed marked improvement last year based on schedule and things should swing back to the norm this fall. Crossover play with the Titans and Steelers won’t be easy but neither team made the playoffs last year. Facing the Chargers and Broncos four combined times is balanced out by two with Oakland. And all four games against the NFC West will be battles. Following the bye in Week 6 and a nasty start to the year that features games at Denver, at San Francisco and New England at home, Kansas City’s slate will lighten up. Other than Seattle and Denver (Week 11 and 13), the Chiefs could be favored in every game. Key road trips to beatable but solid opponents San Diego and Arizona could decide the Chiefs' playoff fate.

10. Washington Redskins
AFC/NFC Crossover:  AFC South, NFC West

Swing Games: Tampa Bay, at Minnesota
Opponents ’13 Record: 49.0% (17th)

Two swing games with Tampa Bay and Minnesota as well as four games with the AFC South should allow for the Skins to improve in ’14. Getting three of the last four games, including two with Philadelphia and Dallas, at home in the final four weeks should as well. That said, facing the NFC West will be nasty and a road trip to Indianapolis comes on the heels of visiting the 49ers (Week 12-13). There are plenty of chances for wins for Washington but this isn’t as easy a schedule as should be expected for a team that lost 13 games last season.

11. San Francisco 49ers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC East
Swing Games: Chicago, at New Orleans
Opponents ’13 Record: 56.3% (4th)

The 49ers start with some tricky games but won’t face a playoff team from a year ago until Week 4. Getting the Super Bowl champs and archrival Seahawks twice in three weeks is brutal but it’s late in the year and is sandwiched around a “road game” against Oakland. The bye week is nicely situated midway through the season in Week 8 and should help ease the Niners into a manageable month of November (STL, at NO, at NYG, WAS). This schedule could have been much harder when compared to the other teams in the NFC West.

12. Carolina Panthers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC North,
Swing Games: Seattle, at Philadelphia
Opponents ’13 Record: 47.3% (22nd)

Not having to face Carolina twice helps the divisional slate for the Panthers but getting Seattle and a road trip to Philadelphia in NFC swing contests will be difficult. The early part of the schedule is highlighted by a nasty three-game road swing in four weeks against the Ravens (Week 4), Bengals (Week 6) and Packers (Week 7) before welcoming the Super Bowl champs to town (Week 8). The bye week is extremely late in Week 12 but the final five games should be manageable. Road trips to division rivals New Orleans and Atlanta will be tough but the Vikings, Bucs and Browns provide some time to breathe late in the year for a team trying to repeat as division champs.

13. New Orleans Saints
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC North,
Swing Games: San Francisco, at Dallas
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.9% (23rd)

Three road trips in the first four weeks makes for an interesting start for New Orleans as the Saints, more than most teams, love playing at home. That said, the first five weeks of the year before the off weekend should provide plenty of wins against the likes of the Browns, Vikings and Buccaneers. It’s a good thing, because following a road game against Detroit in Week 7, the Saints will face a nasty stretch of likely playoff opponents for seven straight weeks. The only good news is a three-game homestand against the 49ers, Bengals and Ravens from Nov. 9-24. The final three weeks do offer some hope with three teams that all missed the playoffs a year ago (at Chicago, Atlanta, at Tampa Bay).

14. Chicago Bears
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC South

Swing Games: Dallas, at San Francisco
Opponents ’13 Record: 49.6% (15th)

There are a lot of winnable games on the Bears’ schedule before the Week 9 off weekend (Buffalo, at NY Jets, Miami). But there are a lot of games they may not be competitive in as well (at San Francisco, Green Bay, at Carolina, at New England). All four AFC East opponents will come before the break with five NFC North games, including all three divisional road trips, coming in the final eight weeks. This is a hit or miss schedule for the Bears with games that look like certain wins and certain losses and not too many swing games. Chicago might be “who we thought they were” — a middle-of-the-pack team who likely won’t make the playoffs.

15. New York Giants
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC West
Swing Games: Atlanta, at Detroit
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.5% (26th)

Getting Atlanta at home and Detroit on the road in crossover play isn’t terribly scary and visiting Tennessee and Jacksonville in crossover play isn’t either. And the divisional slate is relatively spaced out with back-to-back NFC East games only once (Weeks 6-7). The Giants will play one playoff team before the off weekend in Week 8 and will need the extra time to prepare for one of the nastiest four-week stretches in the NFL. New York will come off of the bye and play Indianapolis, at Seattle, San Francisco and Dallas in four straight. The great news is games with the Jaguars, Titans, Redskins and Rams leading into the season finale at home against the Eagles. The Giants should be able to match or improve on their seven wins.

16. Philadelphia Eagles
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC West
Swing Games: Carolina, at Green Bay
Opponents ’13 Record: 47.9% (20th)

Chip Kelly and the Eagles will face two playoff teams from a year ago in the first nine weeks of the season so winning games early is a must for Philadelphia. And getting road trips to Indianapolis and San Francisco out of the way in the first four weeks helps as well. A mid-season stretch against the Panthers (Week 10), Packers (Week 11), Cowboys (Week 13) and the defending champion Seahawks (Week 14) is a brutal five-week run as the calendar flips to December. NFC East games are always tough but the final three weeks of the season feature three straight divisional games against teams who were at .500 or below last year. This slate has some major speed bumps but plenty of winnable games as well.

17. New York Jets
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC North
Swing Games: Pittsburgh, at Tennessee
Opponents ’13 Record: 52.0% (9th)

In the first seven weeks, the Jets' defense will face Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady before the slate lightens up. The brutal beginning gives way to a much more manageable second half with four games with Buffalo and Miami along with games against Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Tennessee. Facing New England twice along with the AFC West won’t be easy and the Jets could be out of playoff contention early on. Wins over the Raiders, Lions and Bears at home in the first month of the season will be paramount for this team if it wants to contend for a playoff spot.

18. Cleveland Browns
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC South
Swing Games: Oakland, at Buffalo
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.5% (26th)

The Browns always have a tough draw in the AFC North as most teams would struggle with six games against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore. Swing games with Oakland and Buffalo are two excellent chances at wins and will be critical to evaluating the Browns' overall trajectory within the AFC. Road trips to Carolina and Atlanta as well as a home game with New Orleans — sandwiched between the Steelers and Ravens in Week 2 — doesn’t give the Browns a cold-weather advantage over the warm-weather Saints.  The middle of the schedule does provide opportunity as the Browns will face the Titans, Jaguars, Raiders and Bucs over a five-week stretch entering November. After that, there is one game (at Buffalo) where Cleveland even has a chance to be favored.

19. Atlanta Falcons
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC North
Swing Games: Arizona, at NY Giants
Opponents ’13 Record: 51.2% (11th)

The year starts with two tough games against the Saints and Bengals but then lightens up until a road trip to Carolina in Week 10. The Falcons could win a bunch of games in the first half as only a road trip to Baltimore feels like a guaranteed loss between Week 2 and the Panthers. Two road trips to Green Bay and New Orleans as well as home games with Pittsburgh and Carolina make the final four weeks extremely difficult. However, the schedule as a whole sets up nicely for the Falcons to bounce back. The NFC North could be the worst division in the NFC and that should help all four teams from the NFC South.

20. Baltimore Ravens
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC South
Swing Games: San Diego, at Miami
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.1% (28th)

The Ravens will start with three straight AFC North games before hosting Carolina and visiting Indianapolis. If the Ravens can survive the first month of play and pick up a few wins in the middle portion — at Tampa Bay, Atlanta, at Cincinnati, at Pittsburgh, Tennessee — then they should finish strong over the final month. Baltimore will face the Dolphins, Jaguars, Texans and Browns in the final four weeks of the season. It means the Ravens will play five of their six divisional games by Week 9.

21. Buffalo Bills
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC North
Swing Games: Cleveland, at Houston
Opponents ’13 Record: 50.0% (14th)

Four games with the Jets and Dolphins offer plenty of chances for wins but two with New England balance that out in short order. Getting to face the NFC North is also a small blessing as only the Packers at home appear to be a certain loss. Crossover play with the AFC West will prove very difficult and swing games with Cleveland and Houston could be tricky. The first two months of the season aren’t all that daunting but the final four weeks will be nasty with road trips to Denver and New England sandwiched around a home game with Green Bay and a long journey to Oakland. If the Browns and Texans show improvement, this could be one of the more difficult AFC slates.

22. Miami Dolphins
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC North
Swing Games: Baltimore, at Jacksonville
Opponents ’13 Record: 50.8% (12th)

Balance is the first word that comes to mind when analyzing the Dolphins' schedule in ’14. The really tough games (New England twice, Denver, Green Bay, Kansas City, Baltimore, San Diego) are spaced out and packaged around easier games with teams like Buffalo (twice), the Jets (twice), Minnesota, Detroit and Jacksonville. In fact, playing in the AFC East and rotating against the NFC North should be very appealing for anyone in the NFL. The bye week is very early but there is no “brutal stretch” for the Fish to deal with in any month of the season.

23. Dallas Cowboys
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC West
Swing Games: New Orleans, at Chicago
Opponents ’13 Record: 48.8% (18th)

Getting the easiest division in football (AFC South) in crossover play is a big plus but having to face the toughest division (NFC West) is a huge concern. All four games against the West will take place in the first nine weeks of the year, meaning Dallas will have to make waves in the second half of the season. This includes two games with each archrival from within the division — including four of the last six games of the season. In fact, the final six weeks will be perilous for the Cowboys as a trip to Chicago and a home game with the Colts are mixed in with four divisional games following the Week 11 off week. There are a lot of chances for wins for the boys in Big D in ’14.

24. Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC South
Swing Games: Kansas City, at NY Jets
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.9% (23rd)

The AFC North gets a nice draw with the AFC South as its crossover competition within the conference and both Houston and Indianapolis come to the Steel City. Games against Kansas City (home) and the Jets (road) are winnable swing games for a team expecting to be above .500 and in the playoff hunt as well. Having to battle Carolina and Atlanta on the road as well as New Orleans at home will prove difficult in NFC competition. And as is the case every year, games within the division against Cincinnati and Baltimore will decide the outcome of the North race. Pittsburgh will have played the Browns and Ravens twice each by Week 9 and have to play the Bengals twice in the final four weeks, including the season finale at home. In fact, the bye week falls perfectly in line with a nasty five-game stretch to end the season featuring the Saints, Bengals (twice), Falcons and Chiefs.

25. Minnesota Vikings
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC South
Swing Games: Washington, at St. Louis
Opponents ’13 Record: 47.7% (21st)

The good news is the Vikings play in the easiest division in the NFC, will play one of the two easiest divisions in the NFL (AFC East) and get two “winnable” swing games with the Redskins and Rams. That said, the Vikings have to play Green Bay twice and don’t get the added bonus of playing themselves twice like the other three teams in the NFC North. The first five weeks of the year are brutal and the Vikes could be winless heading into what should be a much easier last 10 weeks. The Vikings will play two teams in the final 11 games (Green Bay and Carolina at home) that made the playoffs a year ago. It’s a schedule befitting a team that could be the worst in the NFC in ’14.

26. Detroit Lions
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC South
Swing Games: NY Giants, Arizona
Opponents ’13 Record: 49.2% (16th)

Games at Carolina and with Green Bay at home in the first three weeks almost guarantee a slow start for the Lions. However, there are plenty of chances for wins against the Jets, Bills, Vikings, Falcons and Dolphins between Week 4 and Week 10 (as well as a bye week). Things pick up on the road following the off weekend as trips to Arizona, New England, Chicago and Green Bay dot the final seven weeks. There are some tough games but overall, this slate could allow for Detroit to challenge for a Wild Card position. The Lions will play four teams that made the playoffs a year ago all season long.

27. Green Bay Packers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC South
Swing Games: Philadelphia, at Seattle
Opponents ’13 Record: 50.4% (13th)

Returning to the scene of the crime in Week 1 against the Super Bowl champs will be fascinating and difficult. However, after that, the Packers could be favored to win at least five straight games before Carolina comes to town in Week 7 and they visit the Superdome in Week 8. The second half of the schedule, following an off weekend in Week 9, appears tame at best with home games with New England and Philadelphia as the toughest tasks for the Pack in the final eight weeks. Getting six games with the Vikings, Bears and Lions makes this one of the easier NFC schedules.

28. Jacksonville Jaguars
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC East
Swing Games: Miami, at San Diego
Opponents ’13 Record: 45.3% (29th)

The Jags got no favors in crossover play as they will face a developing Miami team and San Diego on the road. Not to mention playing the toughest divisional slate in the AFC South (they don’t get two automatic wins over themselves). Mix in road trips to Baltimore, Cincinnati and Philadelphia in crossover play and it seems difficult to find much improvement from this team. There are plenty of winnable home games (Tennessee, Houston, Cleveland, Miami, Pittsburgh, NY Giants) but this team will most likely be an underdog in every game it plays this fall.

29. New England Patriots
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC North
Swing Games: Cincinnati, at Indianapolis
Opponents ’13 Record: 51.6% (10th)

As usual, not having to face New England twice makes this arguably the easiest divisional schedule of any team in the NFL. Six winnable games in the AFC East are matched by at least three games against the NFC North in which the Pats will be heavily favored. A trip to Green Bay late in the year before having to travel to San Diego could pose some problems. However, the Patriots end with three straight within the division — two of which are at home. Denver, Indianapolis and Cincinnati dot the schedule with some marquee showdowns but, overall, this isn’t an overly taxing slate for a team of New England’s caliber.

30. Tennessee Titans
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC East
Swing Games: NY Jets, at Kansas City
Opponents ’13 Record: 43.8% (31st)

There are four really tough road trips on the Titans' schedule as they break in a new coaching staff but otherwise, there is a lot to like about Tennessee’s 2014 draw. Early trips to Cincinnati and Indianapolis might be the two toughest games of the year while mid-to-late season trips to Baltimore and Philadelphia loom large as does the season-opener in Kansas City. However, every other game is winnable for the Titans. The home slate could feature plenty of wins as Dallas, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Houston, Pittsburgh and both New York teams will visit Nashville. Couple that with visits to Washington, Jacksonville and Houston and the Titans could be looking at a playoff berth.

31. Indianapolis Colts
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC East
Swing Games: New England, at Denver
Opponents ’13 Record: 43.0% (32nd)

Based on numbers, the Colts get the easiest schedule in 2014. Two swing games are as tough as any in the league as Indianapolis faces Peyton Manning on the road in Week 1 and Tom Brady at home in Week 11 following a bye week. A round-robin with the AFC North will be tough, as Indy faces Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in a four-week stretch early in the year. Getting six games against the Jags, Titans and Texans helps make this one of the easiest looking paths in the AFC. The key will be swing games against the NFC East. Wins over the Eagles and Redskins at home and road trips to the Giants and Cowboys could decide if this team gets a first-round bye or not.

32. Houston Texans
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC East
Swing Games: Buffalo, at Oakland
Opponents ’13 Record: 44.1% (30th)

The Texans will face three playoff teams (four games) all season long in 2014 and three of them will take place at home. Swing games with Buffalo and Oakland are early in the year and should be wins for Houston. Four games with Tennessee and Jacksonville offer opportunity as well. Package that with the AFC North and NFC East and Houston doesn’t have a guaranteed loss on the entire schedule. Is a road trip to Dallas the toughest game of the year? At Indianapolis? At Pittsburgh?

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