Rating early schedules: Five teams that get breaks and five that don't

by | Senior NFL Columnist

The Bengals start tough with the division nemesis Ravens but then catch a break. (Getty Images)  
The Bengals start tough with the division nemesis Ravens but then catch a break. (Getty Images)  

People are always telling me that it's how you finish the season that counts, not how you start it -- and maybe they're right. But the Detroit Lions last year won their first five games, dropped six of their next 11 and reached the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

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The Lions are proof that quick starts can pay off, which is why I want to know who's next in line ... and who's not.

So I compiled a list of five teams that may have the easiest schedules in September and October and five that may have the most treacherous -- with the idea that, like Detroit, their futures may be determined by what happens first.

Now, let's get something clear before we proceed: Just because Green Bay and Philadelphia are among those with difficult early schedules doesn't mean I think they're doomed. On the contrary, they're two of the best teams out there and look like playoff cinches. It's just to suggest that the first half of their schedules are more challenging -- OK, daunting -- than most of the others.

Five that should get off to fast starts

Atlanta Falcons

9/9 -- @Kansas City
9/17 -- Denver
9/23 -- @San Diego
9/30 -- Carolina
10/7 -- @ Washington
10/14 -- Oakland

The lowdown: Do the math. There isn't an opponent with a winning record in there, and there's only one with a 2011 playoff resume. That would be Denver, which has Peyton Manning instead of Tim Tebow and which should be better. But Atlanta draws the Broncos at home, and, yeah, OK, so Manning is most comfortable in a dome. But so are the Falcons, 26-6 at home in the regular season under Mike Smith.

Toughest game: I make it San Diego. The Chargers are home, and the team and its head coach must deliver this season. Granted, the Bolts typically start slowly, and Atlanta not only hasn't lost in San Diego (the Falcons are 5-0 there; 7-1 overall) but is 5-0 under Smith on the West Coast. Still, there's an urgency with the Chargers that might have been missing in the past, and they look to be improved. Plus, it's a cross-country trip.

Cincinnati Bengals

9/10 -- @Baltimore
9/16 -- Cleveland
9/23 -- @Washington
9/30 -- @Jacksonville
10/7 -- Miami
10/14 -- @Cleveland

The lowdown: The Bengals start by facing the heavy artillery, but look what happens after Baltimore: They don't play an opponent with a winning record in 2011 over the next five weeks. Even better, they take on teams that were a combined 24-56 a year ago, including Cleveland twice. The bad news is that four of their first six starts are on the road, but look at the upside, Bengals' fans: Your team does no worse than 4-2 and could lap the field. Me? I see Cincinnati 5-1 after six weeks, which should put it at or near the top of its division by mid-October.

Toughest game: We don't need Stephen Hawking to figure this one out. It's Baltimore, and it will serve as an early gauge of this year's Bengals. They were a playoff team last season but were 0-4 vs. Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The Ravens are missing Terrell Suggs, but they're also home where they seldom lose.

Arizona Cardinals

9/9 -- Seattle
9/16 -- @ New England
9/23 -- Philadelphia
9/30 -- Miami
10/4 -- @ St. Louis
10/14 -- Buffalo
10/21 -- @ Minnesota

The lowdown: The first three games have their potholes, especially that Sept. 16 trip to New England. But I count one winning record (the Patriots) among Arizona's first seven opponents, and it draws vastly improved Philadelphia at home -- where it's tough for any East Coast team to win. Let's say the Cards win only one of those first three games. That's OK because the next month delivers opponents with a combined record of 17-47.

Toughest game: New England. Bad enough to fly across country to play the Patriots at home. Worse, you must outscore Tom Brady with an offense that can't make up its mind between quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and John Skelton.

New Orleans Saints

9/9 -- Washington
9/16 -- @Carolina
9/23 -- Kansas City
9/30 -- @Green Bay
10/7 -- San Diego BYE 10/21 -- @Tampa Bay

The lowdown: The Saints are the league's biggest offseason loser, but the NFL cut them a break with a schedule that features one winning record among its first six opponents. Granted, it's mighty Green Bay, and it's at Lambeau Field. But let's say New Orleans fizzles there. Then what? Then the next biggest obstacle is San Diego, and the Saints draw them at the Superdome where they didn't lose in 2011. Plus, the Chargers struggle early. That's another way of saying I like the Saints' chances of going 4-2 or 5-1 early, no matter who coaches them.

Toughest game: Green Bay. The Saints lost there last year with Sean Payton and Jonathan Vilma, so I'm not sure which is more difficult: Finding a victory there or finding a Roger Goodell bandwagon on Bourbon Street.

Chicago Bears

9/9 -- Indianapolis
9/13 -- @Green Bay
9/23 -- St. Louis
10/1 -- @ Dallas
10/7 -- @ Jacksonville

The lowdown: Yes, I see the second game on the schedule, and, uh-huh, I know it's at Green Bay where Jay Cutler hasn't won. But look what bookends that date: St. Louis and Indianapolis, the two worst teams in the league last year. Then it's on to Dallas and Jacksonville, neither of which had a winning season in 2011 and finished a combined 3-7 the last five weeks. The Bears think they can be a playoff team this season. Now you know why.

Toughest opponent: It's Green Bay again. Cutler is 1-6 vs. the Packers, with 7 TDs and 12 interceptions, and only once threw more touchdowns than interceptions and had a passer rating greater than 82.5. Both happened in the same game in 2007 when he was with Denver and had one scoring pass, produced a rating of 95.7 and ... you guessed it ... lost.

... and five that may not start fast

Cleveland Browns

9/9 -- Philadelphia
9/16 -- @ Cincinnati
9/23 -- Buffalo
9/27 -- @ Baltimore
10/7 -- @ N.Y. Giants
10/14 -- Cincinnati

The lowdown: Let's see, I count four playoff opponents among Cleveland's first six games, including the defending Super Bowl champion, plus a short week before going to Baltimore. Life is not fair when you're the Cleveland Browns. And Brandon Weeden, don't say you weren't warned: Four of the NFL's top five sack leaders (including Cincinnati twice) are here, and the Buffalo Bills -- who aren't in that group -- just added Mario Williams.

Toughest game: Take your pick. Me? It's that Sept. 27 date in Baltimore. First of all, it's the Ravens. Second, it's a Thursday night, which means it's a short week. Third, it's in Baltimore, where Baltimore loses about as often as the Orioles win pennants. Put them together, and what do you have? Yep, no shot.

Philadelphia Eagles

9/9 -- @ Cleveland
9/16 -- Baltimore
9/23 -- @ Arizona
9/30 -- N.Y. Giants
10/7 --@ Pittsburgh
10/14 -- Detroit

The lowdown: When owner Jeff Lurie backed Andy Reid after last season's 8-8 disappointment, he forgot to tell him what he was in for: Heartbreak Hill in the first mile of the marathon. There are four playoff opponents here, and the two that aren't are road games. Granted, Cleveland should be a lock. But Arizona? One of the toughest places to win for East Coast teams. If there's a break it's drawing Baltimore at home ... without Terrell Suggs and with the Ravens coming off a Monday night game vs. Cincinnati.

Toughest game: Pittsburgh. Not only are the Steelers always a tough out -- especially at home -- but Philadelphia meets them immediately after playing the defending Super Bowl champs.

Green Bay Packers

9/9 -- San Francisco
9/13 -- Chicago
9/24 -- @ Seattle
9/30 -- New Orleans
10/7 -- @ Indianapolis
10/14 -- @ Houston

The lowdown: The only breather here is Indianapolis, and it's a road game. Otherwise, I can think of easier ways to open the season. In San Francisco and Chicago the Packers face two of the most physical defenses anywhere. Then it's on to Seattle where Pete Carroll quietly is assembling a defense to rival the 49ers. Lucky for Green Bay it meets New Orleans away from the Superdome and without Sean Payton, but not lucky that it must go to Houston two weeks later. The 49ers' defense last season ranked second in fewest points allowed. Houston was fourth and Seattle sixth. I think you get the idea. Welcome back, Matt Schaub.

Toughest game I'm going with Seattle on Sept. 24. First of all, there's a deafening crowd. Second, the Seahawks are improved. Third, it will be Matt Flynn's Super Bowl, and, yes, that means I believe he starts. I don't care what Carroll says; if he had a conviction about Tarvaris Jackson he wouldn't have spent the big bucks on Flynn.

Denver Broncos

9/9 -- Pittsburgh
9/17 -- @ Atlanta
9/23 -- Houston
9/30 -- Oakland
10/7 -- @ New England
10/15 -- @ San Diego
10/28 -- New Orleans
11/4 -- @ Cincinnati

The lowdown: Maybe Peyton Manning should've waited on the schedule before deciding where to work next. Two of his first three opponents ranked 1-2 in team defense, and that includes Pittsburgh, which has a score to settle from the playoffs. Manning hasn't played in a year-and-a-half and underwent four neck surgeries, which means this is no way to climb back on the Welcome Wagon. The good news is that three of the Broncos' first four games are home; the bad is that four of their first five opponents are playoff teams and six of the first eight fit that description.

Toughest game: Either Pittsburgh or New England. Me? I'll take the Patriots, just because they're home and because I don't know what Manning looks like after Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Houston get through with him. But I wouldn't underestimate the Steelers. Their defense was embarrassed by Tim Tebow in the playoffs and has something to prove. If I'm Manning, I learn how to duck.

Tennessee Titans

9/9 -- New England
9/16 -- @ San Diego
9/23 -- Detroit
9/30 -- @ Houston
10/7 -- @ Minnesota
10/11 -- Pittsburgh
10/21 -- @ Buffalo

The lowdown: Memo to Jake Locker: Maybe sitting down the first half of the season isn't such a bad idea after all. The Titans open with three playoff opponents in the first month, with San Diego the exception. But Tennessee must go there, and the Chargers are difficult to beat at home. The Titans also draw Blitzburgh and Mario Williams in consecutive weeks -- tackling the Steelers on a short week after traveling to Minnesota. Good luck.

Toughest game: New England. OK, so it's home. Big deal. It's the Patriots, and tell me the last time they lost a season opener. It was 2003, and they average 29 points in the eight victories since then -- including one where Tom Brady missed most of the game. Last time I checked, Brady was still under center, and the Patriots were improved over the team that last year won the AFC.


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