Vance Joseph has his work cut out for him. While the new Broncos coach takes over a team that won the Super Bowl a year ago, Denver has the strongest strength of schedule in 2017 — its opponents had a combined .578 winning percentage last season. That's mostly due to the fact the Broncos play in the loaded AFC West, with two games against each team, but also because they will face a total of six teams that won 10 or more games last year.
Still, strength of schedule doesn't tell the whole story. There are several factors that make a schedule hard or easy, and after looking at every team schedule released this week, we think there are five tougher schedules than the Broncos'. Here are the hardest and easiest schedules of 2017.
The schedule makers must be bitter San Diego fans, 'cause they did Philip Rivers and the Chargers no favors. The Bolts already are up against it as the weak link in the AFC West, with two games apiece against the Raiders, Chiefs and Broncos. On top of that, the Chargers will play at the Pats, Giants and Cowboys — the latter on Thanksgiving, on three days' rest. (Does that make them the turkey?) They easily could start 0-8. That could spell doom for their home crowds, which already were a question with the Rams scheduled to play three home games on the same day and time as the Chargers.
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Marvin Lewis has yet to win a playoff game as Cincinnati's coach, and his streak of six straight postseason appearances ended last year. So here's the good news: The Bengals' 2017 schedule is pretty forgiving. They open with two at home, and while Week 2 against Houston is on just three days' rest, the extra days off afterward will help prepare them for a tough game at Green Bay. They also have a bye before their Week 7 game at Pittsburgh. And while they play three straight on the road in November, the first two are at Jacksonville and Tennessee. Throw in two games against the Browns and one against the Bears, and it could be a bounce-back year for the Bengals.
Sean McDermott is another first-time head coach who has his work cut out for him. Buffalo could be OK for the first two months, with home games against Denver and Oakland and a road game at Atlanta as the only big tests before November. But the Bills will be hard-pressed to finish strong, with these final six games: at Chiefs; Patriots; Colts; Dolphins; at Patriots; at Dolphins. That's life in the AFC East. The Bills could be staring at 8-8 or 7-9 again.
It's just not fair. The defending champs have reloaded this offseason and now seemingly have an easy road back to the Super Bowl. The Pats' toughest games in the first two months are all at home, including against the Falcons. They have two straight on the road against the Broncos and Raiders, but have a bye week to prepare for them. They play three straight on the road in December but they're against Buffalo, Miami and Pittsburgh — teams that Tom Brady owns. They finish at home with playoff tune-ups against the Bills and Jets.
Maybe the worst thing you can say about the Pats' schedule is they have nine early games. But that's not an issue for a Bill Belichick team, now is it?
Speaking of the Pats, the Chiefs open their season in the home of the defending Super Bowl champions. And it doesn't get much easier from there.
In addition to the four tough ones against Denver and Oakland, Andy Reid and KC have games at the Texans, Cowboys and Giants, plus home games against the Steelers, Dolphins, Redskins, Eagles and Bills. That's a total of seven playoff teams from last season.
On top of that, the Chiefs have a league-high six primetime games, including four in five weeks. (Who knew America wanted more Chiefs football?) Will KC shrink under the spotlight? We won't presume any such thing, but it's worth noting.
OK, you might've heard a bunch of talk about Oakland having one of the hardest schedules. Well, I'm gonna argue the opposite.
Yes, the Raiders face the tough AFC West slate. But they don't face a team that made the playoffs last season until Week 7. Yes, from Weeks 11 though 15 they face teams that had a combined .738 winning percentage last season. But their toughest games outside the division (Pats, Cowboys, Giants) are all at home. OK, Pats will be in Mexico City, but that will be like a home game. As will both their games in L.A.
Really, the only thing that could make this schedule not so easy is if the fans in Oakland turn against the team. But if the Raiders are winning — and they're set up for success — there will be plenty of fans who show up for a possible Super Bowl run.
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Another case of having the misfortune of playing in the AFC East. The Dolphins play the Pats twice in 15 days, with a game against the Broncos sandwiched in between. It's part of a season-ending nine-game stretch that goes like this: at Ravens; Raiders; at Panthers; at Pats; Broncos; Pats; at Bills; at Chiefs; Bills.
The Dolphins had better hope the Bills are beaten down by their own tough season-ending schedule.
Miami also plays at Atlanta and in London (against the Saints) with no bye week following the trip to Europe.
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The Pats aren't the only AFC power with a clear path to the playoffs. The Steelers open: at Browns; Vikings; at Bears; at Ravens; Jaguars. The schedule gets slightly tougher, but not by much. Antonio Brown should do plenty of dancing right up until Week 15 against the Pats — and even that one is at home, as is the season finale against the Browns.
Browns bookends — nice schedule if you can get it.
And while the Steelers will play four straight primetime games from Week 11-14, they're against the Titans, Packers, Bengals, and Ravens — not exactly a murderers row.
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The NFC East gauntlet is not quite as tough as the AFC West, but it's up there. Especially since the Giants will be hard-pressed to sweep the Cowboys like they did last year. They also have road games against the Broncos, Raiders, Cardinals and Bucs, plus home games against the Lions, Seahawks and Chiefs.
Then there's this: New York plays four teams coming off a bye week — the most in the league. Since 2003, only eight teams have losing records coming off a bye week, according to FS1 research staff. The Giants will have a net total of minus-22 days of rest compared to their opponents, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
Finally, the Giants make four trips to the Pacific and Mountain time zones, logging more travel miles than every East Coast team except the Jags who travel to London.
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At the opposite end of the spectrum is the AFC South, where Andrew Luck and the Colts get the benefit of two games apiece against the Titans, Jags and Texans (who have a championship defense but a question mark at QB). The Colts also get games against the Browns, Rams and 49ers. In fact, Indy faces only three teams that made the playoffs last season. That translates into the easiest strength of schedule in the league.
After missing the playoffs two straight seasons, the Colts had better capitalize.