2018 NFL schedule rankings, AFC East: Patriots have it easiest, Bills in trouble

If you're hoping that 2018 will finally be the year that a team not named the Patriots wins the AFC East, well, I have some bad news for you: For the bazillionth year in a row, the Patriots seem to have the easiest path to a division title in the AFC East. 

Sure, bazillion isn't a number, but it might as well be when we're talking about the Patriots, who have won the AFC East a total of 14 times over the past 15 seasons, and that number would probably be 15 out of 15 if Tom Brady hadn't gone down with a season-ending knee injury during Week 1 of the 2008 season. 

With the regular season still three months away, you might be wondering how we already know that the Patriots have the easiest route to the division title and that's because we went ahead and ranked all 32 schedules in the NFL, starting with the four teams in the AFC East. 

The easiest way to rank each schedule in the NFL is to use strength of schedule, but we don't like doing things the way easy around here, plus, that's not exactly the most efficient way to rate schedule difficulty. Instead, we've devised a formula to rank every team's schedule. It's the middle of dead season in the NFL, in case you're wondering where we found the time to devise a formula to rank every team's schedule. 

Basically, we went through each individual game on each team's schedule and ranked it based on difficulty. For instance, the Jets open up the 2018 season with the Lions, which seems winnable until you start factoring in a few things. For one, the Jets are 4-12 on the road over the past two seasons, they're 1-7 against the NFC and they don't even know who their starting quarterback is going to be for the opener. On the other hand, the Lions have a veteran offense that rarely struggles in the early season, which is a big reason why Detroit has gone 6-1 in its past seven regular season openers. 

Not only did we look at factors like that, but we also looked at Super Bowl odds. Since the oddsmakers in Las Vegas seem to know what they're doing, we incorporated their odds into our formula, which is why the Bills could be in for a rough season. 

Not only do the Bills have to play two teams that Vegas loves -- Green Bay and Minnesota -- but they have to play them on the road, in consecutive weeks (Weeks 3 and 4). Um, good luck with that, Buffalo. On the other hand, the Jets get to play both the Vikings and Packers at home in games that will be played nine weeks apart. 

Although the strength of schedule is the same for those two games -- the Jets and Bills are both playing two teams that combined to go 20-12 (.625) in 2017 -- we can probably agree that the Bills have it more difficult since both of their games are on the road. We can also probably agree that IHOP switching their name to IHOB was the worst idea ever (In case you haven't noticed, I'm just trying to keep this theme of agreeing on things going so that you agree with my rankings). 

One final thing we used with this formula is the first three games of the season. We weighted those three games slightly more than the other 13 games because they tend to be a good indication of how a team will play throughout the season.  Basically, teams that go winless in their first three games almost never make the playoffs. 

Since 1990, only three teams have started 0-3 and made the playoffs (1992 Chargers, 1995 Lions, 1998 Bills).

On the flip side of that, 3-0 usually means good things in the NFL: From 1990 to 2010, 75.9 percent of the teams that started 3-0 made the playoffs. Those odds drop to 54.9 percent for 2-1 teams and 23.3 percent for 1-2 teams. 

You can look at last year's playoff field as proof of how important the first few games are: Of the 12 teams that made the postseason, only the Saints (1-2) didn't have a winning record through the first three weeks of the year. The other 11 teams either started the year 2-1 or 3-0. 

This basically means that if your favorite team has a murderer's row in the first three weeks of the season, you should probably just give up on 2018 and start paying attention to 2019. 

The reason we're not giving the final three games of the season more weight is because the final games don't always mean the same for everybody, especially when a team is resting its starters. The Saints went 0-3 in their final three games in 2009 and still won the Super Bowl. The Ravens went 1-2 in their final three in 2012 and also won the Super Bowl.  

Alright, that's enough rambling, let's get to these rankings. 

Oh, and one more thing, here's how things are going work: On Tuesdays and Thursdays over the next four weeks, we'll be going division by division to rank every schedule in the NFL and we're going to start with the AFC East so everyone can complain about how the Patriots always have the easiest schedule. It's important that we all stand together in these divisive times. 

Ranking the AFC East schedules

4. New England Patriots

Schedule difficulty rating: 80.0

Easiest stretch: Sometimes, the entire schedule seems like an easy stretch for the Patriots, but since it would be too lazy to list all 16 games here, we're going to list a stretch where the Patriots get to hang out at home for nearly a month. Starting in Week 4, the Patriots play three straight home games -- against the Dolphins, Colts and Chiefs -- that will keep them in Massachusetts for nearly a month straight (September 24 to October 20). The good news for the Patriots in the stretch is that they play the Colts on a Thursday, which means they'll have 10 days off before trying to get revenge on a Chiefs team that crushed them in the 2017 regular season opener. After that three-game home stretch, the Patriots have a Week 7 game in Chicago, which means the Patriots will be playing four straight games where they're favored to win by five or more points. The Patriots also have a Week 11 bye, which is exactly where I would want my bye if I had a 41-year-old quarterback. 

Roughest stretch: The Patriots might not be in a holiday mood when December rolls around and that's because their roughest stretch of the season starts that month. Not only do they have to play the Vikings in Week 13, but they have to travel to Miami to play the Dolphins the next week, which could be trouble for a Patriots team that's just 1-4 in South Florida over the past five seasons. After a trip to Miami, the Patriots will head to Pittsburgh for a game against the Steelers in Week 15. Let's hope everyone's on the same page with the catch rule by the time that game rolls around. 

Weird scheduling note: It's almost like the NFL schedule-makers copy and pasted the final four games of the Patriots 2017 schedule and made that their 2018 schedule. Over the final four weeks of the 2018 season, the Patriots play the exact same teams in the exact same locations that they did in 2017. 

3. New York Jets

Schedule difficulty rating: 87.25

Easiest stretch: With the Jets, there is no such thing as an easy stretch, but we'll list one here, anyway. The Jets have a very winnable September and it wouldn't be completely crazy to see them end the month at .500 or better. The easy part of that September stretch starts in Week 2 with the Dolphins and ends in Week 3 with the Browns. Although the Jets have to travel to Jacksonville in Week 4, which isn't ideal, the good news is that they'll have a 10-day rest beforehand since they play the Browns on a Thursday night in Week 3. 

Roughest stretch: It's bad enough that the Jets have to play the Packers and the Patriots this season, but the news is actually worse because they have to play Green Bay and New England in consecutive weeks. Wait, we're not done here, it's even worse than that: Those two weeks just happen to be the final two weeks of the season (Weeks 16 and 17). Basically, the Jets better have a playoff berth clinched by November if they want to get to the postseason because it's very unlikely that they'll be able to knock off Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady in consecutive weeks. 

Weird scheduling note: The Jets won't be spending much time in a plane this year. In their eight road games, the team will only visit two times zones (Eastern and Central), they won't travel west of Nashville and their furthest flight will come in a week where they play a division rival (Miami). 

2. Miami Dolphins

Schedule difficulty rating: 87.75

Easiest stretch: Forgetting the Jay Cutler-era will be a lot easier for Dolphins fans if their team gets off to a hot start this season, which will be completely possible thanks to their opening stretch. With their first three games of the season against the Titans, Jets (away) and Raiders, it wouldn't be completely crazy to see Miami jump out to a 3-0 start. In unrelated news, the Dolphins might want to consider some sort of "Wizard the Oz" giveaway for October because they'll be playing the Lions, Tigers (Bengals) and Bears. Oh my!

Roughest stretch: It's not going to be a Merry Christmas in Miami. The Dolphins play five games in December and all five are against teams that made the playoffs in 2017. If the Dolphins are somehow still in the playoff race going into the final month of the season, all they have to do to stay alive is beat New England, Minnesota and Jacksonville in consecutive weeks. Those three games are sandwiched by two games against the Bills in Weeks 13 and 17. The second game is in Buffalo and if you've ever been to Buffalo in late December, then you probably know that this likely won't be a good thing for the Dolphins. 

Weird scheduling note: Unless they get flexed, the Dolphins will only play in one primetime game this year, which marks just the second time in the past 10 years that the team has only been given one primetime game. The only other that that's happened over the past decade came in 2012. 

1. Buffalo Bills

Schedule difficulty rating: 91.25

Easiest stretch: There are no easy stretches on the Bills schedule. The entire thing is one giant landmine. It now makes perfect sense that this was the team that used Fortnite to announce their 2018 schedule, because that entire game is about survival, which should probably just be the theme for Buffalo's entire season.  

Despite the fact that there's no easy stretches for Buffalo, we listed an easy stretch for everyone else, so we'll also list one for the Bills. The only real break that Buffalo will be getting on the schedule comes in Week 9, when they play the Bears and Jets in consecutive weeks, before getting a Week 11 bye. 

Roughest stretch: Someone in the NFL office must have a personal vendetta against the Bills, because the team has one of the most brutal opening stretches in recent NFL history. Not only do they have to play three of their first four games on the road, but two of those road games are at Minnesota (Week 3) and at Green Bay (Week 4). The one home game in that span will come against a Chargers defense that ranked fifth overall in the NFL last season in sacks. Basically, if the Bills are thinking about starting Josh Allen, they might want to wait until October just so his confidence doesn't get destroyed during the first four weeks of the season. 

Weird scheduling note: The Bills won't play their first divisional game of the season until Week 8. As a matter of fact, the Bills will have played nearly the entire AFC South (Titans, Texans, Colts) before they play a single game against an AFC East team. Of course, that first divisional game is probably circled on every calendar in Buffalo. The Bills will open division play against the Patriots on Monday, Oct. 29, marking the first time in 10 years that Buffalo will get to host a Monday night game.        

Strength of schedule note: To give you an idea of how this scheduling formula compares to strength of schedule, consider the Bills and Packers. If you only take into account records from the 2017 season, then the Packers have the toughest schedule heading into 2018 with the Bills ranking 18th overall. However, under our formula, the Packers rank behind the Bills, Dolphins and Jets with a schedule difficulty rating of 81.25. 

CBS Sports Writer

John Breech has been at CBS Sports since July 2011 and currently spends most of his time writing about the NFL. He's believed to be one of only three people in the world who thinks that Andy Dalton will... Full Bio

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