2018 NFL schedule rankings, AFC South: Colts face rough ride, Texans have it easiest

It's a good thing that Andrew Luck can now actually throw a football, because the Colts are definitely going to need him in 2018. 

After struggling through last season without Luck, things could get even uglier this year if he can't play and that's because the Colts have the most difficult schedule in the AFC South. With the regular season still three months away, you might be wondering how we already know that the Colts have the most difficult schedule in the division, and that's because we went ahead and ranked all 32 schedules in the NFL. 

The easiest way to rank each schedule 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. 

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Basically, we went through each individual game on each team's schedule and ranked it based on difficulty, and let's just say, the Colts could be in trouble. A full 25 percent of their schedule this year will be played against teams that fielded a top-10 defense last season (Eagles, Cowboys, Jaguars x 2), which isn't exactly ideal when you'll likely be starting a quarterback who hasn't played an actual football game in more than 16 months. 

Not only did we look at each individual game, 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 a big reason why the Colts could be in for a rough season. 

Not only do the Colts have to play both Super Bowl participants from last season (New England and Philadelphia), but they have to play them both on the road, in a three-week stretch (Weeks 3 and 5). Um, good luck with that, Indy. On the other hand, the Titans get to play both the Eagles and Patriots at home in games that will be played six weeks apart. 

Although the strength of schedule is the same for those two games -- the Colts and Titans are both playing two teams that combined to go 26-6 (.813) in 2017 -- we can probably agree that the Colts have it more difficult since both of their games are on the road. 

All four teams in the AFC South will actually be playing both the Eagles and Patriots this year, but the Colts definitely got the short end of the stick in the scheduling department. 

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. After starting with the AFC East on Tuesday, which you can read by clicking here, we'll be hitting the AFC South right now. Next week, you'll be getting the AFC North (June 19) and the AFC West (June 21).

Ranking the AFC South schedules

4. Houston Texans

Schedule difficulty rating: 77.75

Easiest stretch: The Texans are the only team in the AFC South that gets to play the Browns this year, which made it pretty easy to pick out Houston's easiest stretch: Just find Cleveland on the schedule and go from there. The Texans most winnable stretch of the season starts in Week 12 with a home game against the Titans and continues for four straight weeks. After hosting the Titans, the Texans get home games against the Browns and Colts before traveling to New York for a Week 16 game against the Jets. Surprisingly, the Titans might end up being the easiest game of that stretch and that's because Texans coach Bill O'Brien has never lost to them in Houston (4-0). As a matter of fact, the Texans are actually 6-0 in their past six homes games against the Titans.     

Roughest stretch: The Texans better go 4-0 during their easiest stretch, because one week after facing the Jets, Houston will hit the road for its ugliest stretch of the season. Over the final two weeks of the year, the Texans have to go on the road to Philadelphia to take on the defending Super Bowl champions, before coming home to close out the season against the Jaguars. That's a brutal two-game stretch that could end up killing the holiday mood in Houston this year. 

Weird scheduling note: The Texans only play two weekday games this year, and coincidentally, both those games will be at home and both games will come against two teams that can't ever seem to win in Houston. In Week 8, the Texans will host a Thursday game against a Dolphins team that has never won in Houston in franchise history (0-4). Four weeks later, the Texans will host the Titans in a Monday game, and as we already mentioned, O'Brien has never lost a home game to Tennessee.  

3. Jacksonville Jaguars

Schedule difficulty rating: 86.25

Easiest stretch: It's almost fitting that the Jaguars beat the Bills in the playoffs last season, because that's where their easiest stretch starts for them in 2018. Starting in Week 12, the Jags have a three-game stretch that includes games against the Bills, the Colts and the Titans, with two of those coming on the road (at Buffalo, at Tennessee). The big advantage for the Jags here is that they have one of the best defenses in football, which should work out to their advantage when they go up against Buffalo, who will have an inexperienced starting quarterback under center, whether that's Josh Allen or AJ McCarron. As for the Colts, the Jags should be in a position to give Andrew Luck a rough welcome back to the NFL, if he's healthy enough to be Indy's starter in Week 13. 

Roughest stretch: If the Jags defense hadn't collapsed in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship last season, then we likely would have seen a Jags-Eagles Super Bowl. Although we didn't get that last year, we will be getting that game in 2018 with a twist: It's going to be in London. The game against Philly will wrap up the Jacksonville's roughest stretch of the season. Starting in Week 5, the Jaguars play two road games in a row against two teams that could give them trouble (at Kansas City, at Dallas). After that, the Jags return home to play Houston, before shipping off to London for their game against the Eagles.  

Weird scheduling note: If it starts to seem like the Jaguars are playing a 2017 playoff nearly every week this season, that's basically because they are. Not only will the Jags be playing both Super Bowl teams from last season, but they'll also be facing every team that made the AFC playoffs. 

2. Tennessee Titans

Schedule difficulty rating: 88.25

Easiest stretch: The Titans opening three games might not be the easiest stretch on paper, but they all seem very winnable for Tennessee. For one, over the first two weeks of the season, the Titans will be playing against two teams -- the Dolphins and Texans -- that both have a quarterback trying to return from a serious injury. Basically, it wouldn't be that crazy if Ryan Tannehill or Deshaun Watson looked a little rusty when they take the field early in the season. In Week 3, the Titans get a Jacksonville team that they swept last season. Basically, it wouldn't be a total surprise if the Titans are 3-0 heading into Week 4. 

Roughest stretch: Starting in Week 7, the Titans will be hitting the road four times in five games. On one hand, the stretch actually isn't that bad because they also have a bye week thrown in there (Week 8). However, on the other hand, they do have to fly all over the world during their four road games, which is what makes the stretch so ugly. Not only do the Titans have to fly to London for a game against the Chargers (Week 7), but they also have primetime games on the road against Dallas (Week 9) and Houston (Week 12). Oh, and their only home game during that lengthy road stretch is against the Patriots (Week 10), which isn't ideal.  

Weird scheduling note: If you're looking for a team that might be able to make a late season playoff push, then make sure you keep the Titans in mind later this year. Of the five games that Tennessee will be playing in December, four of them will be at home. The Titans are one of just two teams in the NFL -- along with the Seahawks -- that will get to close the season with four home games over the final five weeks. 

1. Indianapolis Colts

Schedule difficulty rating: 94.75

Easiest stretch: The Colts don't really have an easy stretch on their schedule, but they do have three straight games in October that seem very winnable, starting in Week 6 (at NY Jets, Bills, at Raiders). However, when your easiest stretch includes one playoff team from 2017 and two road games in three weeks, then you don't really have an easy stretch on your schedule. 

Roughest stretch: When the NFL put together this year's schedule, the league did exactly zero favors for the Colts. The ugliest part of Indy's schedule starts in Week 2, which means if Andrew Luck is playing, he's not going to have much time to get re-adjusted to the NFL. Starting with the second game of the season, the Colts will hit a stretch where they play four out of five games on the road road (At Washington, at Philadelphia, Houston, at New England, at NY Jets). As if that's not ugly enough, the Colts have to play BOTH Super Bowl teams on the road in a three-week period.  Maybe the Colts should just keep Luck in bubble wrap until 2019.

Weird scheduling note: From September 10 to November 10, the Colts will only be playing two homes games, which isn't good news for a team that went 1-7 on the road last season.      

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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